Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series detailing Republican Gov. Sean Parnell in his roles as an Alaska resident, governor and candidate for office. Part one is focused on Sean Parnell the person.
Republican Gov. Sean Parnell is seeking re-election this fall, but governor wasn’t the only office he seriously considered running for this year.
Sitting in the library of the Governor’s Mansion on a sunny afternoon last week, Parnell said he spent the much of the first half of 2013 considering a run for Democratic Sen. Mark Begich’s seat in Washington after party officials first approached him in late 2012.
“I was heavily recruited to run for the U.S. Senate this time, but I really felt I had a job to complete here,” Parnell said, noting that calls urging him to run came fairly regularly for months until he ultimately decided on a re-election bid instead.
He postponed making a decision until late in the spring of 2013 so he could focus on the Legislature as it worked on his oil tax overhaul, SB21. After his hallmark legislation passed and the 2013 session adjourned, Parnell announced he would be seeking a second gubernatorial term — ending any speculation he might challenge Begich in 2014.
“I really felt the stability and certainty of direction that I provided for the last five years is something that Alaskans deserve to continue,” he said, noting that his running could have meant a new senator and a new governor.
Considering all the factors, he ultimately came to the conclusion that “Alaska would be better off with me and our administration continuing to work at moving Alaska on the right track,” he said.
Still, the governor stopped far short of ruling out a run in the future.
“I believe I can have more positive impacts for Alaskans as governor than I could as one of 100 senators — at this time in our history,” he said, emphasizing those last six words.
Parnell’s daily schedule varies widely day-to-day — especially during election years — and often eclipses 12 hours on-the-job. Every day starts out with the same reading lineup, however.
Starting sometime between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m., the governor spends about an hour reading his Bible, talking with First Lady Sandy Parnell and getting ready for the day. Then he reads “five or six” newspapers, checks his emails and occasionally makes a few work calls before the official business day begins.
“Most people don’t know what it’s like to get on an airplane about 180 times in a year,” he said.
The only year Parnell checked to see how many flights he travelled on was 2011, when he flew 165 times. It wasn’t even an election year.
“Unless you’re in the seat, you don’t really know how rigorous a job it is.” he said. “It takes somebody willing to commit that kind of time.”
Take Tuesday for example, when Parnell was in Anchorage for both state and campaign business. The governor started the day with his usual morning routine around 5:30 a.m., and, save a 45-minute dinner with his son’s family in Anchorage, his day as governor and candidate didn’t end until 10:15 p.m. in Juneau.
Byron Mallott, the democrats’ pick for the governorship, criticized Parnell in a press release last week for travelling across Alaska on the state’s dime to sign bills that “could just as easily be signed at his desk.” Parnell said the bill signings are an integral part of his approach to the job.
“Being able to connect the benefits of a bill with real Alaskans is why we do bill signings in different parts of the state,” he said. “It’s too easy for a governor to become isolated and not stay connected with the people.
“That’s part of bill signings — connecting the people’s government with the people we serve.”
Parnell said the way he governs Alaska derives itself from a closely held personal faith — it’s the same faith that compels him to start every day reading his Bible, no matter how full an agenda awaits.
“At my core, my faith really determines my compass and character,” he said. “It determines who I am for my wife and my kids, and it determines who I am in terms of the direction I set.”
Often coaxed by political strategists, supporters and opponents alike to keep his religion and job separate, Parnell says that’s just not possible.
“I don’t know how you can separate being trustworthy from state business — that’s important. I don’t know how you can separate loving the people you are serving — that’s part of my faith, and that’s part of me being governor,” Parnell said. “I love when people say you can’t mix your religion with your office, but I say it’s because of my compass that I’m trustworthy, it’s because of my compass that I love people, it’s because of my compass that I serve others beyond myself.”
Still, when the laws of the land require him to act contrary to his personal beliefs (such as providing public funding for abortions), he does what is legally required. That doesn’t mean his convictions are tossed aside.
“I am obligated to do that to a certain degree by our Supreme Court,” Parnell said of providing funding for abortions, “but it’s something that, personally, I oppose and I work to limit through all lawful means.”
Should voters opt to legalize recreational marijuana use in November, Parnell will again find himself in a position where the state law contradicts his own morality.
Parnell said people shouldn’t be looking at the legalization of marijuana as a top state priority. There’s more important work to be done.
“As a society, we ought to be dealing with more important challenges like education, public safety and our resources, than sending a message to our kids that it’s OK to use marijuana,” he said.
For him, it’s a gateway drug — and a very dangerous one. He’ll be voting “no” on the ballot measure this fall.
“Anybody who is an adult has seen friends, family, people close to them lose their initiative in life, lose their academic progress, lose their lives to drugs — and it started or starts with marijuana,” Parnell said earnestly. “I don’t want to send a message to our kids that we, as Alaskans, think that using marijuana is fine. That’s counterproductive to our kids.”
He pointed out that many jobs in Alaska — trade, transportation and many others — require new hires to pass drug tests both when hired and at random points during their employment. Nothing in the initiative going before voters prohibits employers from maintaining that standard.
“They will lose so many opportunities in life if they go down that track and I don’t want to say that’s OK for us as a people or our kids,” Parnell said.