She's been part of the inner circle for the past eight years, serving as lieutenant to a popular two-term governor.
But Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer has been waging largely an underdog campaign in her bid to become the first woman elected to the state's top office.
And that's with good reason.
Despite being Gov. Tony Knowles' lieutenant governor since 1994, Ulmer was unknown to about one fourth of the people in Alaska when she declared her candidacy in October 2001. Ulmer has battled back from polls that show her trailing Republican challenger Frank Murkowski by as much as 20 percent. With a little more than a week before voters fill out their ballots, at least one poll shows the two candidates are statistically even.
In a recent letter to supporters, she predicted a close election.
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"Alaska has a great future but we can't get there by simply repeating the past. We can do better - with new leadership, new alliances and new strategies," she said. "I'll develop an Alaska gas line that benefits the people of Alaska, and build transportation and telecommunication solutions that meet the needs of the future."
Faced with little opposition in the Democratic primary, Ulmer has since waged a down-home style primary fight, traveling in casual dress into Alaska's Bush by boat or the back of pickup trucks and cutting through the Railbelt in a rented motor home. She's enlisted former Gov. Jay Hammond, one of Alaska's most endearing political figures, to support her campaign. And she has released lengthy papers on how she would tackle some of the state's most thorny political issues.
Ulmer and Murkowski, the two major party candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot, are a study in contrast. And whatever candidate emerges the victor inherits a state government that is a study in contradiction with its $2 billion in a reserve account, more than $20 billion in a seemingly untouchable fund and a huge cash flow problem.
Alaska's reliance on North Slope oil has gone unabated since the state eliminated its income tax in 1980. But the one million barrels per day of crude oil that flows through the trans-Alaska pipeline is about half of its peak average in 1988.
Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer
Fran Ulmer grew up in Horicon, Wis. She attended the University of Wisconsin where she majored in economics and political science. She earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School.
Ulmer moved to Alaska in 1973 after serving as an anti-trust attorney with the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C. She began her political career as a staff adviser to Republican Gov. Jay Hammond, first as legislative liaison and then as director of Policy Development.
She served one term as mayor of Juneau in the 1980s and was first chairwoman of the U.S. Conference of Women Mayors.
Ulmer became a registered Democrat in 1986 and served four two-year terms in the state House of Representatives. She served as minority leader when the GOP took control of the House in 1994.
Ulmer has served two terms as lieutenant governor under Gov. Tony Knowles.
As a legislator she sponsored a bill to lengthen the statute of limitations for prosecuting cases of child abuse and neglect. She also sponsored a bill to require insurance coverage for mammograms.
Ulmer was appointed by former President Clinton to serve on the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, a panel created to enforce the high seas driftnet ban. Ulmer also served on the Governor's Salmon Cabinet.
Ulmer met and married Bill Council in Juneau. They have two children.
Ulmer has an interest in Native culture and is an adopted Tlingit and a member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. Ulmer is also a singer who performed on USO tours in the 1960s and once sang "The Star Spangled Banner" at a Seattle Mariners game.
The Knowles-Ulmer ticket narrowly won office in 1994, beating Republican Jim Campbell by less than 540 votes in a recount. Nearly 14 percent of the vote was split between three other candidates for governor. Knowles and Ulmer took 51 percent of the vote in 1998. Ulmer never has lost an election.
Alaska is the only state to cut general fund spending during the past decade, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But it still has racked up more than $5 billion in budget shortfalls that have been paid for by its Constitutional Budget Reserve.
The state Department of Revenue estimates the $2.2 billion reserve account will last for about three years. New taxes seem as certain for Alaska as defeat does to the candidate that proposes them, said economist David Reaume.
"The first candidate to tell the truth loses," he said.
Murkowski has touted economic development themes, promising to grease the skids for oil and gas, mining and timber to close the gap.
Both Ulmer and Murkowski support opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge' coastal plain to drilling and construction of a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48.
But ANWR development is going nowhere and pipeline incentives face an uncertain future in Congress. And even if they emerge, they would be several years from fruition, Ulmer said.
Her answer to bridging the state's fiscal gap has been detailed. Ulmer will not go on record for favoring a statewide tax, but acknowledges one is needed.
She promised to veto any budget that involves spending earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund, unless the spending was approved by voters.
And she advocates using a "parachute plan" where taxes automatically kick in when the state's reserve falls below $1 billion. The governor and the Legislature would determine what taxes would be used, she said.
Murkowski has derided her pessimism - pointing to rising oil prices that are slowly brightening more dour state revenue predictions from last spring.
North Slope crude oil has averaged $26.50 per barrel this year, $6 above the state Revenue Department's predictions. At that pace, the state's budget deficit would shrink to about $500 million, the department said.
"I don't think it's a responsible position to say that just because the price of oil is up this week that our problem is not that big of a problem," Ulmer said during campaign trip in August.
Gubernatorial running mates
Fran Ulmer/Ernie Hall Democrat
Frank Murkowski/Loren Leman Republican
Don Wright/Daniel DeNardo Alaskan Independence
Diane Benson/Della Coburn Green
Billy Toien/Al Anders Libertarian
Raymond Vinzant Sr./Dawn Mendias Republican Moderate
Editor's note: The Empire will take a look at the other four gubernatorial candidates on Tuesday.
"The uncertainty about that budget gap is having a chilling effect on our economy," she said.
The Ulmer camp has turned up the heat on Murkowski in recent weeks, criticizing what they called his "don't worry, be happy" approach to the fiscal gap. They point to Ulmer's fiscal plan, a 37-page document detailing her approach to economic development, which includes resource extraction.
"We have the ability to use our natural resources as building blocks for a stable, diversified and growing economy," she said.
Ulmer is vying to become the first woman governor Alaska has elected. Others have run before her, but in a largely conservative state only Republican Arliss Sturgulewski has come close.
Republican pollster David Dittman, who is involved in the Murkowski campaign, sees gender as an advantage for Ulmer in a state where women make up 52 percent of the electorate. In turn, Murkowski's camp has emphasized his support of funding for breast cancer efforts and recruited prominent women supporters.
Women vote more consistently than men and, all things being equal, are more likely to vote for another woman, Dittman said.
"That gives her a lock on the Democrat women and some of the nonpartisan women," he said.
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