ANCHORAGE - Gov. Frank Murkowski is on a trade mission to Asia and will not be around when voters select his successor next week.
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Murkowski is on an 11-day international trade mission to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. He is scheduled to be in Tokyo on Election Day when Alaskans choose his replacement. The new governor will be sworn in Dec. 4.
Murkowski, state officials and business representatives are meeting with presidents, premiers, ministers, ambassadors and industry executives, according to the governor's itinerary.
The trade mission is an important chance for Murkowski to promote Alaska coal, fish, air cargo and tourism with the state's most important foreign trading partners, said John Manly, the governor's spokesman.
Some state lawmakers are questioning the timing of the trip.
Murkowski's bid for re-election ended when he lost the Republican primary in August.
State Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said Murkowski's impending departure from office, along with appointed officials, might dilute whatever good will they are able to generate.
"Their names are going to be coming off the Rolodexes in Taiwan and Korea and Japan," he said.
The trade mission began Saturday when Murkowski departed for Taiwan's capital of Taipei. It is scheduled to conclude Nov. 9 in Seoul, South Korea.
The trip has great potential for good no matter what critics say, Manly said.
"It's not a junket at all," Manly said. "In my opinion, those people are shortsighted and don't understand what goes into marketing Alaska. These are our biggest trading partners, and the governor's purpose in going over there is to advance business and trade connections that are very beneficial to Alaska and to our economy."
Margy Johnson, the governor's international trade director, said Wednesday from Taipei that the trip was meant to "continue our government-to-government relations with our primary trading partners, and keep the door open for the next governor."
She said she did not have information with her about the cost of the trip and referred travel expense questions to Manly. Johnson said the state was paying costs only for the 10 state employees and not Alaska business people traveling with the governor.
On Wednesday morning, Linda Perez, the governor's administrative director, told the Anchorage Daily News she had no overall budget for the trip but would send details of certain incidental costs such as ground transportation and several hundred dollars worth of "protocol gifts" for dignitaries. Manly told the newspaper later in the day that Murkowski chief of staff Jim Clark ordered the information withheld.
Clark did not want to release only partial information about the trip's costs, Manly said.
"My point is that if you could hold off for a day or two, we can get you some real good material from these meetings," Manly said.
Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said he had been out of state himself for a couple of weeks and was not aware of the governor's trade mission.
Even though he's leaving office soon, it's a busy time back home for Murkowski, Wilken said.
He called a special legislative session for Nov. 13 to deal with court-ordered employment benefits for state workers with gay partners. Also, his staff must plan the transition to a new administration.
"Obviously the timing is a little bit odd," Wilken said of the Asia trip. "But hopefully they will lay some groundwork for the next governor."
Elton formerly headed the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and made trade trips himself to Japan, the state's top foreign trading partner and a major importer of Alaska seafood. Exports to Japan totaled $1.2 billion last year.
People in Asia place a high premium on face-to-face meetings, Elton said. Murkowski "does have cachet in Asia," Elton said, because of the many trips he took there as a U.S. senator.
"He is extremely well-known in Asia. He is probably the most well-known American in Taiwan," said Chuck Kleeschulte, a longtime aide to Murkowski during the governor's 22-year U.S. Senate career.
Murkowski traveled to Asia almost every year as a senator, and his press conferences in Taipei used to draw 60 reporters or more, Kleeschulte said.
Others on the trade mission include Commerce Commissioner Bill Noll; Mike Barry, chairman of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority; Murkowski fisheries adviser Alan Austerman; and Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
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