Gov. Sean Parnell (R)
Elected: Assumed office July 2009, term expires Dec. 2010, 1st full term.
Born: Nov. 19, 1962, Hanford, CA .
Education: Pacific Lutheran U., B.B.A. 1984; U. of Puget Sound, J.D. 1987.
Family: Married (Sandy); 2 children.
Elected office: AK House of Reps., 1992-96; AK Senate, 1996-2000; Lt. gov, 2006-09
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1987-present; ConocoPhillips, atty. & lobbyist; Deputy dir., AK Div. of Oil & Gas.
Republican Sean Parnell took over as governor of Alaska on July 26, 2009 from Sarah Palin, who unexpectedly resigned with 18 months left in her term. Parnell had been elected lieutenant governor in 2006 on a Republican ticket with Palin, who later was swept into the swirl of the 2008 presidential campaign as GOP nominee John McCain’s running mate. Although she connected well with party conservatives, Palin’s stumbling performance on the national stage raised doubts about her suitability for vice president. She cited residual negative attention from the presidential campaign in announcing her resignation as governor in early July.
|Sarah Palin (R)||114,697||(48%)|
|Tony Knowles (D)||97,238||(41%)|
|Andrew Halcro (I)||22,443||(9%)|
|Sarah Palin (R)||51,443||(51%)|
|John Binkley (R)||30,349||(30%)|
|Lisa Murkowski (R)||19,412||(19%)|
Parnell was born in Hanford, Calif., just south of Fresno. His father, Pat, was stationed at the Army’s Fort Richardson in Anchorage and fell in love with Alaska. He moved his family there in 1973, when Sean was 10 years old. The elder Parnell opened a law practice in Anchorage and got involved in politics. He served in the Anchorage Assembly and in Alaska’s House of Representatives as a Democrat. In 1980, Pat Parnell unsuccessfully challenged Republican Don Young for the state’s lone congressional seat. Even then, Alaska tilted heavily Republican, and Young won with 74% of the vote.
Meanwhile, Sean Parnell attended college and law school in Washington state. Following his father’s career path, he returned to Anchorage, opened a legal practice, and ran for office. But, unlike his father, he ran as a Republican. In 1992, at age 29, he was elected to the state House, where he served two terms. In 1996, he was elected to the state Senate. Parnell championed legislation to toughen domestic violence penalties, citing the effect his grandfather’s alcoholism and physical abuse had on his own family. In the state Senate, he rose to become co-chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, where he worked to increase state oil revenues and to balance the state budget.
In 2000, citing a desire to spend more time with his family, Parnell announced that he would not seek a second Senate term. He returned to work as a commercial contract lawyer in Anchorage, and later took a job with ConocoPhillips as an attorney and lobbyist. In 2003, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, appointed him as deputy director of Alaska’s Division of Oil and Gas, a post that got him deeply involved in negotiations over the state’s proposed natural-gas pipeline. Two years later, Parnell parlayed his knowledge of energy issues into a job at the Anchorage branch of the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Patton Boggs, which handled such high-profile cases as the defense of what is now ExxonMobil in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
Parnell returned to politics in 2006 with his successful campaign for lieutenant governor. His primary opponent was state Sen. Jerry Ward, who accused Parnell of being too cozy with oil companies. But Ward had his own record to defend—he had been arrested on a burglary charge, which was later dropped, and he had served probation for a gun conviction. Ward had run for lieutenant governor several times and lost. Still, polls showed the two in a tight race, although Parnell ultimately won 57%-43%. After his victory, Parnell joined with Palin, who had won the Republican gubernatorial nomination by defeating the scandal-scarred incumbent, Murkowski. Palin and Parnell faced a Democratic ticket led by former Gov. Tony Knowles, with state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz as his running mate. Knowles entered the race late but campaigned on his considerable experience. He argued that he was the best candidate to negotiate a pipeline deal that could deliver Alaska’s great natural-gas reserves to market. Palin started off trailing in the polls and with plenty of political enemies in her own party. But in an election year in which the national mood seemed to be running against incumbent Republicans, Palin’s outsider status was an asset to the party. On Election Day, Palin and Parnell defeated Knowles and Berkowitz, 48%-41%, with 9% going to Andrew Halcro, a former Republican legislator running as an independent.
Throughout the first two years of their administration, Parnell was a loyal Palin ally. He supported her tax increase on oil companies and her plan to give Alaskans $100-a-month debit cards to use for gasoline as part of an energy relief plan. But in March 2008, he shocked much of Alaska’s political establishment when he announced a primary challenge to Young, hoping to oust the 17-term congressman who had defeated his father 28 years earlier. Young had been tainted by scandals involving appropriations earmarks favoring a Florida company that had been a substantial donor to his campaigns. Parnell ran as a fiscal conservative and pointed to his budgetary experience in the state Legislature as a contrast to Young’s decades-long history of effusive earmarking. Parnell called for a one-year freeze on earmarks, which budget hawks have attacked in recent years as wasteful, pork-barrel spending. Palin endorsed her lieutenant over Young, and early polls showed Parnell leading the incumbent. Young forcefully attacked Parnell as inexperienced. On Alaska Public Radio, he called Parnell “Captain Zero,” and Young told his challenger during the GOP state convention, “I beat your dad, and I’m going to beat you.” Parnell had strong support from the national anti-tax group Club for Growth and was also endorsed by the conservative National Review. On the night of the August 26 primary, Young had a narrow lead of 152 votes; after absentee ballots were counted, he prevailed by 304 votes. Parnell decided against requesting a recount, saying that the cost to the state could not be justified. Young went on to defeat Democrat Berkowitz in November.
For his part, Parnell was still the lieutenant governor, and, as it turned out, his responsibilities multiplied rapidly. After McCain chose Palin as his running mate in August 2008, Parnell took over many of the day-to-day duties of governor while Palin was on the road campaigning. He was thrust into the top job by Palin’s sudden decision to step down in midterm. Parnell said he learned he would be taking over as governor only two days before Palin’s hastily arranged press conference on July 3 at her Wasilla home on Alaska’s Lake Lucille. Palin cited numerous reasons for her premature departure, including not wanting to be a lame-duck governor, frustration with media scrutiny of her family, and state and personal resources that had been spent battling ethics claims against her. “We know we can effect positive change outside government at this moment in time, on another scale, and actually make a difference for our priorities. And so we will, for Alaskans and for Americans,” she told a small crowd of neighbors and local reporters.
Palin also praised Parnell’s capability as her successor, saying he would carry out their “good, positive agenda for Alaska.” Parnell, who was at the press conference, said, “I profoundly respect your decision for I know the depth of character and integrity from which it springs. … I believe history will look back on Sarah Palin as one of Alaska’s great gifts to all peoples.”
Parnell signaled that he planned to continue many of Palin’s policies, including pursuing a natural-gas pipeline for the state. He has also said he intends to seek a full term in 2010, although other Alaska Republicans have indicated they plan to run for the nomination. In recent years, Parnell has come under fire from some fellow Republicans for being too close to Palin and her positions. Halcro, the former state House member who ran for governor in 2006, said on his blog, “Having served with Parnell when I was in the Legislature, he was a strong and consistent voice against the tax-and-spend ways of government. However, under Palin, he has stood faithfully beside her while supporting larger budgets and advocating for questionable economic policies.”