Young mayor in McGrath matures quickly on the job

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2004

 

  McGrath, Alaska Mayor Dustin Parker stands next to the McGrath welcome sign Wednesday Sept. 22, 2004. The 23 year-old mayor didn't vote for himself. In fact, with only six months as a city councilman under his belt, Parker tried to talk a colleague out of nominating him for the unpaid position. AP Photo/City of McGrath, Natali

McGrath, Alaska Mayor Dustin Parker stands next to the McGrath welcome sign Wednesday Sept. 22, 2004. The 23 year-old mayor didn't vote for himself. In fact, with only six months as a city councilman under his belt, Parker tried to talk a colleague out of nominating him for the unpaid position.

AP Photo/City of McGrath, Natali

FAIRBANKS McGrath Mayor Dustin Parker didn't vote for himself. In fact, with only six months as a city councilman under his belt, Parker tried to talk a colleague out of nominating him for the unpaid position.

''I said ... 'No way. I am just a baby. I can't do this,''' he recalled.

His fellow council members disagreed and elected him by one vote. And when the former mayor handed him the gavel a year ago, Parker was more than a little anxious.

''I couldn't even breathe through that meeting,'' he said. ''I am shaking telling you about it. ... I really thought I was going to pass out.

''The entire weight of this entire community is on my shoulders and I am 23 years old. What the heck am I going to do?''

And the people in McGrath had their doubts, said council member Candy Moeller.

''Now they are all just kind of like, 'Wow, he is the best mayor we have ever had,''' she said. ''He has pulled this town out of a slump.''

It has been a demanding year, with long hours and many challenges, including the loss of state and federal revenue.

Parker, known to his friends as Dusty, is sure he has lost some hair over it.

''We have definitely moved mountains,'' he said. ''We experienced the biggest budget deficit in the history of this community.''

They balanced the budget, Parker said, and avoided closing the city of 415 people, at least for this year.

''I am proud that we didn't have to close down our community,'' he said.

Parker's mother, Kathy Parker, said she isn't at all surprised that her son has made an earlier-than-typical entry into politics.

Since he was little, he's said there were three things he was going to be when he grew up: a bartender, a school bus driver and president, she said.

''He has always loved politics,'' she said. ''Once he hit seventh or eighth grade he was adamant; it wasn't if he was going to be president, it was when.''

He was equally enthralled with news, she said, often choosing that over cartoons, even as a small child.

''I always wanted to be one of the good politicians who rose up through the ranks,'' he said. ''I was going to get famous by being a network news person like (Tom) Brokaw and then run for office.''

His interest now is tempered, though not eliminated, by maturity and the reality of politics, Parker said.

''I (don't) want to be one of those people who got into office by special interest,'' he said. ''I wanted to run for public office for the people.''

Parker and his family came to Alaska from Oregon in 1991. His parents left their jobs, sold everything they owned and headed north with Dustin and his two younger sisters.

''My parents are very free spirits,'' he said. ''We just thought, 'What the heck, you only get one shot at life, let's do it.'''

For an 11-year-old boy, the thought of living in Alaska was tantalizing and the possibilities endless.

''I was really shocked to see there were no igloos here when we arrived,'' he said.

Shortly after his family moved to McGrath in 1994, Parker began his broadcasting career at KSKO radio as a weekend disc jockey. For the first three months he would be sick two hours before the show.

''I would throw up and everything,'' he said. ''Then I started loving it. I just liked to connect to people.''

Parker grew up on the KSKO airwaves, from the quiet voice of a youth, to an adolescent's periodic cracking to a man.

''Ten-thousand people witnessed this on their radios over a 10-year span,'' he said.

During his stint at KSKO, he met Maria Downey, an anchor and reporter for KTUU television in Anchorage. After high school, he went to Anchorage to attend college and kept in touch.

Parker said it was Downey who urged him to introduce himself to the station's news director, John Tracy, during a class at the University of Alaska Anchorage. So he did.

''He said, 'I want you to come into my office. I think I have something you may be interested in,''' Parker said.

He was hoping for an internship. Instead he got a job as a weekend associate producer. It was yet another one of those unexpected chances that have been so prevalent in Parker's life.

''I was given a lot of serious adult opportunities at a very young age,'' he said.

After 10 years in broadcasting, Parker recently resigned to take a job as administrator for the clinics in McGrath and two neighboring villages.

But news and politics are so ingrained in his life that Parker doesn't imagine giving either up.

''I will probably still volunteer at the radio station,'' he said.

And he wouldn't rule out a run for statewide office sometime in the future. After his experience as mayor, his mother said she can imagine the same thing.

''I still kind of almost believe that it's not if he will be president, it's when,'' she said.



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