Phillips seeks state's top job

Posted: Tuesday, October 02, 2001

HOMER -- Former House Speaker Gail Phillips announced Monday that she wants to be Alaska's next governor -- unless U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski steps into the race, in which case she will run for lieutenant governor.

Phillips, 57, has spent most of the last 20 years in public office, including stints on the Homer City Council and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, followed by 10 years in the Alaska Legislature. Having grown up in the Nome area and lived all over the state, she said she has a good idea of what Alaska needs from its leadership in the 21st century.

"I believe in our haste and progress in developing from a territory to a state that we have neglected our core values in Alaska" -- caring for one another and keeping up a can-do attitude, Phillips said.

"We can do anything we set our minds to," she added, including overcoming the subsistence impasse, patching up poor rural-urban relations and resolving long-term financial problems.

Her highest priorities would be ensuring Alaskans' safety and "uniting Alaska's cultures and communities," she said.

A longtime supporter of subsistence rights, Phillips said she would support a combination of amending the Alaska Constitution and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, to get the federal government out of subsistence management.

She also supports a long-range financial plan to bridge the fiscal gap between state expenses and revenues, but said her plan is forthcoming.

While several people have expressed interest in running in the Republican primary, only Phillips and Wayne Anthony Ross of Anchorage have filed, and Murkowski is the wild card. Phillips said Murkowski originally said he would announce his intentions this month.

After Sept. 11, however, those plans were put on hold.

"We don't know what he's going to do at this time," Phillips said. "I think he places more importance on what he is doing there (in Washing-ton, D.C.) than this announcement."

Murkowski, whose fourth term isn't up until 2004, has said he is "leaning" toward the governor's race. In August, he said he was waiting for then-imminent Senate action on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which already had been approved by the U.S. House.

Even though the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have muddied the congressional timetable, ANWR remains the key for making an announcement about the race, Murkowski spokesperson Chuck Kleeschulte said Monday.

"Nothing has really changed since August," Kleeschulte said.

If Murkowski does run, Phillips would bow out of the race and seek the lieutenant governor's position.

If not, it is possible Alaska will see two women running for the state's highest office -- Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer is seen as a likely candidate for the Democrats.

"Wouldn't that be fantastic?" Phillips said of the pairing. "It would completely eliminate gender as an issue."

She said she and Ulmer are good friends, although philosophically poles apart.

"People would have a wonderful choice," she said.

Ulmer, who has been lieutenant governor for seven years, said Murkowski's decision, or anyone else's, won't determine whether she runs.

"I will make a statement about that race sometime before the end of the year," Ulmer said Monday. "It certainly is something I have given active consideration to."

But as part of Gov. Tony Knowles' "disaster Cabinet," coordinating state responses to the terrorist attacks, Ulmer said now is not the time to ponder her political future.

Ulmer, a former Juneau legislator and mayor, was House minority leader in 1993-94, when Phillips was majority leader.

"I like Gail. We worked well together," Ulmer said. "I respect Gail, and I think she'll run a good campaign."

Another potential candidate, Republican Sen. Robin Taylor of Wrangell, said he will make a decision on the race by mid-January.

"There's more important things to be addressing right now," said Taylor, who finished second in the 1998 Republican primary and went on to run a write-in campaign in the general election.

Phillips has not yet announced any members of her election campaign team except her two daughters, Robin Phillips, 31, of Anchorage, and Kim Griffith, 30, of Fairbanks. She said she would maintain her home in Homer, but would open offices around Alaska.

She was hospitalized earlier this year for an infection, but said she is in good health and looking forward to the campaign.

"I'm ready to rock 'n' roll."

Joel Gay is the managing editor of the Homer News. Juneau Empire reporter Bill McAllister also contributed to this story.

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