Murkowski's gag order choking debate for some

Posted: Sunday, February 09, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- While in the U.S. Senate, Frank Murkowski would often hold informal press conferences in a small office in the wings of the capitol.

Together with reporters, the senator would cram into a tiny space with room enough for a couch and a couple of chairs and discuss his stance on major events.

Once regarded as the most accessible of the state's Congressional delegation, Alaska's latest governor has quickly earned a reputation of being unavailable and unclear.

In rare press conferences, he's had tense exchanges with reporters. Opposition Democrats have managed to make news out of both what he says and what he doesn't say.

His staff is dogged for details about hunting trips that once passed unnoticed and internal memos are front page news.

Murkowski is learning quickly that the anonymity he enjoyed as Alaska's junior senator for 22 years is gone.

''I don't know if he's made the shift yet,'' said press secretary John Manly. ''Back in the Senate he could go on a hunting trip and nobody in Alaska knew about it, or cared.''

The governor's latest misstep with the media was over an e-mail sent by chief of staff Jim Clark ordering state officials not to talk to the press.

Clark sent the Jan. 2 e-mail to department heads and advised newly appointed commissioners to refer questions to Manly. The administration had acknowledged such an order was in place all along, but did not release the e-mail to statehouse media until this week.

In it, Clark told department heads the administration is not fully in place and many policies have yet to be developed.

''This in turn creates a situation in which the person whom the press believes is speaking for the Murkowski administration is in reality only speaking for himself or herself,'' Clark said.

Murkowski bristled at the suggestion that it was a ''gag order,'' but said it would remain in place until his cabinet is picked and a budget has been crafted. His budget is expected in March.

''Until you get your people in place, until you get your budget, we want to know collectively what is the viewpoint associated with each commissioner on policy matters,'' Murkowski said during a press conference on Monday.

The governor said Monday that he directed staff to ''leak'' the e-mail to the media previously because he knew it would be made public. But most news organizations said they never received the e-mail until requesting it Monday. ''I don't leak very well,'' Manly said.

Gregg Erickson, who publishes the Alaska Budget Report, a newsletter on state government, said the governor has earned low marks for communicating with the public.

''But I think that's because he's focused on other issues,'' Erickson said. ''I think so far the top of their agenda has been getting a team on board.''

During the campaign, Murkowski had vowed to ''hit the ground running'' but Democrats say he's so far been mired in the details of vague campaign pledges.

''They've already hit the ground. They may get up and start running,'' said Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage. ''Just walking would be great.''

The Legislature, which began work Jan. 21, has not received a budget proposal yet and many of the issues raised in Murkowski's State of the State address have not been outlined, they say.

Murkowski vowed during the campaign to require his cabinet to live in Juneau -- a veiled shot at former Gov. Tony Knowles -- but has had difficulty finding people willing to make the move.

The governor promised reforms to spur oil, mining and timber development but then ran headlong into opposition from outside of Juneau with his plan to defang the state's Habitat Division.

The governor proposes giving permitting powers of the division, which has been the bane of some in the timber industry, to the state Department of Natural Resources.

His State of the State address last month included a plan to leverage the power of the $23 billion permanent fund to attract jobs to Alaska. Democrats continue to make headlines dissecting the vagaries of that plan.

''He has not been at all clear about what he wants to do,'' said Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage. ''We're still caught up in the grandiose of the campaign.''

While the gag-order aimed at policy issues, statehouse reporters are finding difficulty getting routine information from lower level staff.

The administration also stumbled after two vacations the governor took recently.

Administration officials at first refused to detail Murkowski's mid-December trip to Texas and Washington, D.C., but later acknowledged it included two days of turkey hunting.

The administration was also reluctant to give details about a January hunting trip to Scotland in which Murkowski flew back in a private jet owned by banking executive Ed Rasmuson.

''He doesn't quite understand why that's interesting to anybody,'' Manly said.

Murkowski plans to assemble cabinet members Monday for a three-day retreat. They will discuss several issues, including communicating the administration's message to the public, Manly said.

Mead Treadwell, a former aide to Gov. Walter Hickel, said a new administration takes some time to begin the work of governing several agencies. It should not be unusual that commissioners are reluctant to discuss policy decisions, he said.

''I think what's happening is they are getting to know each other,'' Treadwell said. ''They are getting their act together.''

While Murkowski will never ''drive his agenda through press releases,'' the administration will be communicating more to the press and public, Manly said.

''Part of the retreat is to get us beyond that. Beyond the gag order,'' Manly said.

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