Sarah Palin stepped down as governor of Alaska yesterday, 17 months early and just weeks after setting off a media firestorm with her resignation announcement. While her future remains uncertain, her successor offers Alaskans continuity.
"We share the same core values," Sean Parnell told reporters shortly before taking the reins as governor. But his personality and background are somewhat different. Parnell moved to Anchorage with his family when he was ten years old. When he was first elected to the state legislature in 1992, he was following in his father's footsteps -- except that his dad was a Democrat and served only one term.
The younger Parnell is a conservative Republican who held public office for all but two years since winning his first legislative election. He went on to be elected to the state senate, where he became deeply involved in the budgetary process as co-chairman of the finance committee.
Gov. Frank Murkowski plucked Parnell from a lobbying position to serve as deputy director of the state Division of Oil and Gas. In 2006, he ran for lieutenant governor alongside the woman who sent Murkowski into retirement. The Palin-Parnell ticket then extended former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles' retirement by beating him in the general election.
Although Parnell promises "stability," Palin's critics are hoping for change. They point out that he has more hands-on experience with substantive policy issues than his controversial former boss. Legislators in Anchorage expect to see stylistic differences as well. "He actually calls us," state House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, told the Associated Press. "He's going to make more of an effort that way."
Fellow Republicans agreed. "I think his understanding of how to communicate is going to do him well," state Rep. John Coghill was quoted as saying. "That's one of the things the present governor has struggled with. I think he will just do better at it."
Yet Parnell has a bit of maverick in him too. In 2008, he stunned some political observers when he got up at the state Republican convention and announced he was challenging longtime Congressman Don Young in the GOP primary. Young was sitting in the audience as Parnell made his announcement.
Running as a strong fiscal and social conservative, Parnell grabbed the Alaska Right to Life endorsement from Young. He was also embraced by the Club for Growth, whose leaders were disgusted by Young's penchant for earmarks. More importantly, he had the support of Governor Palin.
Early polls showed Parnell with a better chance of keeping Alaska's sole House seat in Republican hands than Young, who reportedly spent $1 million of campaign funds on legal fees related to scandals. But Young bounced back and won the primary by a razor-thin margin of 304 votes. Young went on to win re-election, even as Sen. Ted Stevens went down to defeat at the hands of Democrat Mark Begich.
During his congressional run, Parnell spelled out his vision for how Alaska should be governed. "Our reputation as Alaskans," Parnell told TAS last summer, "is that we're always trying to grab as much money as we can when in fact we have a lot to contribute to the rest of the nation." In contrast with builders of Bridges to Nowhere and legislators who boast of stuffing spending bills like turkeys, he argued, "Expecting our children to pay for our spending is irresponsible."
Those words will be put to the test now that Parnell is governor. The economic contraction and a slump in oil revenues gave the state a budget shortfall approaching $1.65 billion at the beginning of the year. Parnell faced similar problems while in the legislature in the 1990s, when he called for across-the-board budget cuts, but his proposal to use Alaska Permanent Fund investment profits to balance the budget failed in a public advisory vote ten years ago. He will also resume the fight for some of Palin's initiatives, such as the natural gas pipeline.
"I'm going to continue her focus on making sure we have natural gas and energy, cheaper energy for Alaskans," Parnell told the AP. "Like I said, we share the same core values." If Parnell can deliver the same core values with less controversy, many Alaskans will consider it a success -- and Sarah Palin's legacy will benefit from her successor.