‘You will not see a repeat of 2019’: Looking back at Dunleavy’s first term and what’s to come

Gov. Mike Dunleavy briefed reporters on the state’s preparations for the coronavirus on March 10, 2020. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has become the first Republican governor in Alaska to be reelected in more than 40 years, marking the end to a long campaign season and the beginning of another four years with Dunleavy at the helm of state government.

“It brings some finality, and it allows us to now move forward and really start to plan for the next four years,” he said in a phone interview after ending the race with just over 50% of the vote in a final ballot count Wednesday. “It’s a good day for us. And I think it’s a good day for Alaska as well.”

But observers say not to expect the next four years to repeat much of the first four. For one thing, between a major earthquake and a pandemic, Dunleavy’s first term was unusually tumultuous. On top of that, Dunleavy began his governorship with a hardline approach that onlookers say has softened over time.

The governor’s first term started with a particularly Alaskan experience: his plane couldn’t take off because of bad weather.

In early December 2018, he was scheduled to take his oath of office in his wife’s Northwest Alaska home village of Noorvik, but the fog was too thick to land.

He ended up having an impromptu swearing-in at the nearby hub city of Kotzebue while he waited for the weather to clear. The surprises didn’t stop there.

Dunleavy’s first year in office was marked with chaos and controversy as the governor settled into his role. He was immediately faced with recovery from the November 2018 earthquake in Southcentral Alaska, plus a sharp drop in the price of oil. 

“And then very soon after that, there were dismissals of employees, there was some acrimony in the transition process,” said Tom Begich, an outgoing Democratic state senator who served while Dunleavy was also in the legislature. “And all of that began to make us believe that this could be a very rough four years.”

Begich said he knew him to be “conservative, with a libertarian streak” and said there was an expectation Dunleavy could take a hardline approach to governing. 

But still, Begich said he wasn’t prepared for just how hardline.

“I think we were all pretty surprised at the absolute degree of cuts and the absolute degree of ideology that appeared,” he said.

Aided by chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock, Dunleavy’s transition team requested resignations from 1,200 at-will public employees, a measure that went far beyond normal turnover between administrations. A judge later found Dunleavy and Babcock acted illegally when they fired two doctors in the transition and the state settled for half a million dollars.

Then, a few months into his term, Dunleavy rolled out massive budget cuts that slashed $444 million from the state’s operating budget: a 41% cut to the University of Alaska, a 75% reduction to the marine highway system, plus cuts to Medicaid, the village public safety officer program and elsewhere.

Begich chalks some of the extreme first-year measures up to hawkish members of Dunleavy’s staff, including Babcock and a budget director brought in from Outside, Donna Arduin.

“I think he got really bad advice,” Begich said. When you first walk into a job and you’re new to a job, you come in with all guns blazing, before you realize that you all actually have to get along.”

Many Alaskans saw the proposed cuts as a draconian attack on state services and a campaign to recall Dunleavy launched the summer of 2019.

“And I think he would have been recalled, except he was blessed by a pandemic of COVID, which stopped everything in his tracks, including the recall,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a political consultant who worked for a super PAC to elect Lisa Murkowski this year. He also worked as a lobbyist while Dunleavy served in the Legislature. 

The pandemic consumed the better part of Dunleavy’s term, and though Alaska emerged with a lower death rate than most other states, its impacts on long-term health and the economy are still coming to light.

Dunleavy walked a middle ground in his pandemic response. He lifted all business capacity restrictions early in the pandemic. He refused to call another emergency declaration in the fall of 2021 while hospitals overflowed and turned to crisis standards of care. 

But at the same time, Lottsfeldt said, Dunleavy disregarded conservative calls to fire Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink.

“I don’t think he ever considered firing Anne Zink,” Lottsfeldt said. “She basically rescued his political career. She’s the one who brought stability to that whole response. And so he let her be her, and that allowed him to be him.”

Begich said dealing with a pandemic made Dunleavy a better governor. Lottsfeldt said Dunleavy, a former Mat-Su state senator, softened his more extreme perspectives and became more moderate as he gained experience.

“I’m being very generous, but that’s how I choose to think, is that being governor has allowed him to be more thoughtful and realize that the solution is more in the center, it isn’t far left or far right,” Lottsfeldt said.

In interviews, Dunleavy has said his second term will build off his first. He lists marketing natural gas, planning for Arctic shipping lanes and improving public safety among his priorities.  Lottsfeldt cautions that with so much turnover among Dunleavy’s commissioners, it may be difficult to attract talented individuals, and newcomers to the administration will have a steep learning curve.

Begich said that after a rocky first year, Dunleavy has built relationships with legislators. Communication between the governor and the Legislature has improved. Though the next session will bring in many first-time lawmakers, he said he’s optimistic about what they will accomplish. 

“It’s absolutely clear to me that you will not see a repeat of 2019,” Begich said.

Last week Dunleavy said he is willing to work with any legislator who “wants to move Alaska forward.” 

“I think what part of this election shows is that people are not interested in the personalization, the politicalization of some of these relationships,” the governor said. 

Begich said he thinks the conditions are in place for a productive legislative session, but it’ll come down to the cooperation of everyone involved, including the governor. 

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Kavitha here.

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