If the sky falls, who's in charge?

Behind the News

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2000

All this talk about Tony Knowles going to work for the Bush administration raises questions about gubernatorial succession.

The rumor that Knowles would become George Dubya's energy secretary appears baseless, so it's not expected that he will. And if he did, it's no secret to any high school civics graduate that Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer would take over as governor.

But it doesn't go much further than that. Alaska law only says the governor should pick someone to be his No. 3 guy or gal.

In this administration, that person is Attorney General Bruce Botelho, a former Juneau mayor who also served as A.G. in the last part of the Wally Hickel's second term as governor.

"I don't know exactly why he picked the attorney general, but I suspect it has to do with his thorough understanding of Alaska and the law and his experience as mayor," said Bob King, Knowles' chief spokesman.

Beyond that, there isn't much planned for succession. In fact, nothing at all.

The assumption, according to Botelho, is that the lieutenant governor would name a new No. 3 as soon as she became No. 1. And if Mr. Knowles Goes To Washington and Ulmer leaves office to run for Congress or work on a new arrangement of "The Alaska Flag Song," Gov. Botelho would name someone to fill in the gap in the order of succession.

That's how it worked in 1969, when Gov. Wally Hickel left to be President Nixon's interior secretary. Then, Lt. Gov. Keith Miller took over the top office and Administration Commissioner Bob Ward, Hickel's designated No. 3, became lieutenant governor.

But what state law doesn't seem to contemplate is a catastrophic scenario that would simultaneously knock the governor, the lieutenant governor and the designated next-in-line out of commission.

I've dealt with all three and have no desire to see them become victims of catastrophe. But I've watched enough bad movies and natural disaster TV specials to imagine some possibilities.

Knowles and Ulmer work out of the Capitol, while Botelho's office is across the street. What if huge avalanches cascade down Mts. Juneau and Roberts and bury upper downtown? Or Russia's Mir space station drops from orbit, punches through the clouds and transforms the vicinity of Fourth and Main into a pitted crater?

Who takes over then?

"There is no provision for other successors," said Botelho. "Unlike the federal law, which establishes a very specific protocol ... we don't have a particular lineup that anticipates a contingency where you lose both governor and lieutenant governor at the same time."

Some thought has gone into lowering such a risk. It's general policy for the governor and lieutenant governor to avoid flying on the same plane. King said it occasionally happens, but it's rare.

"I can't recall a whole lot of cases where they've actually had to go out of their way to fly on different commercial flights," he said.

So should we worry about this? Probably not, said Peter Wiley of the National Governors' Association. There have been numerous cases of governors dying in office, but he couldn't think of a time when a state's top two or three officials were knocked out simultaneously.

Some states elect their governors and lieutenant governors separately sometimes from different parties leading to lawsuits aimed at keeping the opposition from taking over the top post or posts, said Gail Manning of the National Conference of Lieutenant Governors. But that's not likely to happen here, since the guv, his lieutenant and the A.G. are all from the same party.

The political implications of succession are, of course, fascinating.

If Knowles moves on to another job, Ulmer's gubernatorial ambitions would get a great boost. It's no secret she's the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in '02, but she has a lot to overcome. Being a woman from Juneau who's sometimes tagged as a liberal means three strikes against her in the eyes of some who are not any of the above. Running as the incumbent could give her the extra oomph to win the election.

And then there's Botelho, who's also had political ambitions. He lost a hard-fought legislative race to Bill Hudson in 1986 and considered running for Ulmer's House seat when she tried for her current position in 1994.

But he told me that despite being the third in line, he really hasn't thought much about the prospect of becoming governor.

"For me to speculate is a futile act," he said. "I don't see that in the cards."

Ed Schoenfeld is city editor of the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at eschoenfeld@juneau empire.com.

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