Parnell wins nomination in convincing vote

Posted: Wednesday, August 25, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, who inherited the job from Sarah Palin and was credited with restoring calm after her tumultuous tenure, won the GOP gubernatorial primary Tuesday.

Parnell beat a field of challengers that included former legislator Ralph Samuels and Bill Walker, an Anchorage attorney who mounted an aggressive campaign funded with hundreds of thousands of his own dollars.

In winning Tuesday, Parnell fended off criticism during the campaign that he is not bold enough to lead the state.

During his first year in office, Parnell won praise from some for restoring calm to state government after Palin quit last summer, and has scored some legislative wins in advancing his agenda.

In November, Parnell will face either state Sen. Hollis French or Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat whose primary campaign was focused in part on attacking Parnell.

Parnell said Palin helped sponsor a fundraiser for him this summer, and that he got a call of congratulations, on her behalf, from one of her family members. He declined to say which one, or describe the call, calling it personal.

But he said she was very supportive of him, and he appreciated it.

With 225 of 438 precincts reporting, Parnell had 50 percent of the vote. Anchorage attorney Bill Walker, who poured hundreds of thousands of his own dollars into his campaign, was second, with 34 percent; former legislator Ralph Samuels was a distant third in the field of six, with 13 percent.

On the Democratic side, Berkowitz led French 48 percent to 41 percent with 51 percent of precincts reporting.

With Alaska at an economic crossroads, voters were asked whether to stick Parnell or shake things up at the Capitol again.

Parnell had to fend off five GOP challengers on Tuesday, including Samuels and Walker, an Anchorage attorney who poured $300,000 of his own dollars into a campaign almost singularly focused on building an "all Alaska" natural gas pipeline.

"I don't know how that pencils out. It's easy to promise that, but I don't think the state belongs in business," said Mark Graber, 51, a real estate investor and Republican who was supporting Parnell because he thought he's done "an OK job."

Oil helps fuel Alaska's economy, and a long-hoped-for natural gas pipeline is seen as a way to not only try to offset some of the lost oil revenues but also to create new jobs and provide a more reliable source of energy to some of Alaska's most populous areas. Not surprisingly, the issue of oil taxes and the best approach to take in building a line have been focal points of the race, both on the Republican and Democratic sides.

Berkowitz, a former state House minority leader, has set his sights on Parnell despite facing his own primary challenge from French. He favors scrapping the current oil production tax scheme for a field-by-field system, saying a customized "100 percent royalty" scheme recognizes "the unique costs and challenges of developing individual leases." French called that ill-advised, saying the existing system has worked "spectacularly" and helped the state to sock money away and forward-fund K-12 education.

French also said Berkowitz has had his shot at big races before - lieutenant governor, U.S. House - and lost. French said he's afraid of the same result in November, for Democrats, if Berkowitz is the nominee.

Mortician Matt Duncan, 35, said he voted for Berkowitz because he's a "fiscally conservative Democrat." Jamie Yager, 31, an Anchorage city worker, backed French because of his positions on education and vision for the state's future.

Critics, like Walker, have accused Parnell of lacking the passion needed to truly power the state forward amid continued declines in oil production and what many see as a growing encroachment on state's rights by the federal government.

Parnell said that's unfair, and that his "quiet respect" for others should not be mistaken for lack of resolve. He said he's proven, time and again during his first year in office, that he acts decisively, in Alaskans' interests.

"When it comes to pushing back for Alaska, I've stepped up time after time, whether it's the federal government, with timber, mining, fish, oil and gas, health care," he said after the final GOP debate Monday. "I've been there, stepping up and fighting Alaskans' fights."

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