Welcome back to Friday in the Sun. We’re back from a much-needed hiatus from digging up the state’s latest and sometimes greatest collection of gossip and rumors from the political world (just don’t expect us to ever be on time).
What a seven days it’s been (so I blame any and all typos on my covering the inauguration, a spur of the moment flight to adopt a dog from Fairbanks and a spiffy, but sorta busted new version of WordPress), but before we dive in here’s your regular disclaimer that this is all rumor and speculation filtered through a political blogger. Take it with a pinch of salt and use your brain.
It’s me, General Disarray
Sure, the transition between one administration to another will see some change—they’ll tell you that it’s necessary to run a good team, and it is—but stories from the frontlines of the transition don’t suggest they’re off to a particularly great start.
Take this story from an Anchorage area employee for example. He or she got word of their firing on Monday morning while away from the office because the office had, you know, been hit by a big ol’ earthquake the Friday before and was closed. So while Dear Gov. Mike Dunleavy was busy celebrating in Kotzebue/Noorvik, plenty of employees were running back to the office (again on a day off) to pack their things and do what little could be done in two hours to hand things off.
Not great, but perhaps to be expected. What this employee found when arriving at the office wasn’t.
First of all, the folks brought in by the Dunleavy team to run the place didn’t know who had been fired and assumed that this particular employee was going to stay on and help with the transition. Nope, just there to pack up.
Was there anyone to hand projects off to? To explain the ins and outs of the position? Nope.
It sounds like this was more or less the norm across the board. Commissioners who’ll be tasked with running these departments had little, if any, say in whose resignations would be accepted and who’d be kept on. All the decisions came from the top down.
The thing is that this employee’s department in particular had actually been working on conservative-leaning projects that they’d hope would find a welcome home in the new Dunelavy administration. They did this all with the full knowledge that they’d probably lose their jobs.
“We had hoped we’d get the chance to hand off some pretty solid and well-developed ideas to the new administration so they could hit the ground running. It’s not like you stop being invested in Alaska the minute it’s no longer your job anymore,” said the employee. “It’s really upsetting that what seems like a political ploy get in the way of something we thought Dunleavy would be excited about.”
“Now likely in the void,” another fired employee said.
“I thought they’d want to at least keep me around to get up to speed on the projects,” another said, “but, nope, done at noon.”
So don’t let all the people who are calling this transition business as normal for a new administration and that it’s important for the commissioners to have people who are on their team fool you. This is and has always been about making sure everyone’s on board with the Dunleavy team.
“Kiss the ring of Dunleavy or be fired,” another employee said.
“They’re making a lot of changes, but they don’t know what they don’t know,” said another former employee. “Walker did that, too, and it made for a rocky start to his administration.”
It’s not going down particularly well, either, just take a look at the editorial penned by the Alaska Journal of Commerce’s conservative Andrew Jensen.
“No matter how Dunleavy’s transition tries to slice it, the unprecedented move to ask for the resignations of every at-will employee in the state was a clumsy, ham-handed decision that did nothing to get the administration off on the right foot with the people he intends to lead,” he wrote, directing much of his ire at Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock.
“By picking someone like Babcock as chief of staff and having him claim a mandate that is not nearly as strong as he’s asserted, the message has been muddled from being the governor of Alaska to being the governor of Republicans and created unnecessary uncertainty and distrust among the workforce that was not needed before, and certainly not after, the Nov. 30 earthquake.”
I shot the sheriff, but I did not choose the deputy
And as if commissioners aren’t already facing enough trouble—whether it be the loss of budgeting power, the broad jettisoning of institutional knowledge or, let’s be honest, the general lack of qualifications for some—we’ve heard that commissioners aren’t even being allowed to pick their own deputy commissioners. All the decisions are coming from the top.
One person familiar with the process told us that it’ll make taking the reins of the departments a difficult job for commissioners as they sort out the working dynamics of the administration.
“The sign of a good administration is trusting your team,” this person said.
“There are some that are qualified and some who look like political payback,” said one observer of the commissioners and deputy commissioners.
“This is clearly going to be a very top-down administration, and a lot of the power is going to be consolidated there and you can see it already in the kinds of appointments they’re making at the department level and at the governor’s direct staff,” said yet another observer. “For the most part, the commissioners and their offices are filled with the decent conservative folks you’d expect to see in any Republican administration, but when you get to the top there’s a really concerning level of ideological zealotry. Everyone’s watching for the fights between the administration and the Legislature, but I’m getting the popcorn out for the conflicts that rise in the administration itself: between the agencies and the governor’s office.”
Another person summed it up succinctly:
“It’s a shitty way to run a government,” said the person, “but maybe that’s the point.”
On a side note, as people wonder about how the administration and the Legislature will interact, keep in mind that Republican legislators have frequently railed against what they see as top-heavy administrations for the departments.
Some, say incoming House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Tammie Wilson (though that looks like it won’t be the case anymore), have gone as far as to openly question the need for two deputies and set their sights specifically on giving former Sen. Joe Thomas the boot from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“Tammie was out for blood,” a person recalled. “I wonder if she’ll look the other way, be a good Republican and let it slide.”
A calculated move
The appointment of House District 13 Rep.-elect Nancy Dahlstrom to head up the Department of Corrections caught many as one of the more qualified members of the cabinet, but it also means a change for the House before members have even been seated (and that voters won’t get to see their elected pick take office).
It takes Dahlstrom and her labor-friendly politics out of the House calculation. All speculation points to someone hand-picked by Tuckerman Babcock for the replacement and someone who takes the party line seriously. So much for district input.
A relevant section
No legislator may hold any other office or position of profit under the United States or the State. During the term for which elected and for one year thereafter, no legislator may be nominated, elected, or appointed to any other office or position of profit which has been created, or the salary or emoluments of which have been increased, while he was a member.Alaska Const. art. II, § 5.
A reprieve, of sorts
Some credit is due to Attorney General-appointee Kevin Clarkson who sent an email out to everyone in the Department of Law that he’s put a halt to the whole resign-or-pledge-your-loyalty process for the department (though it will continue with the state’s District Attorneys). Still, it came after the Dunleavy team did its first sweep of attorneys which, to nobody’s surprise, included Juneau-based attorney Libby Bakalar.
While Bakalar has not been shy about exercising her First Amendment rights to free speech, plenty of people I’ve talked to both from inside and outside the State of Alaska have labelled this as just about one of the most baldly partisan moves of the administration.
If they had taken the time to understand Bakalar’s work (as I have from time to time during stories) instead of obsess over her Twitter account, they’d know she’s a hard-as-nails attorney who doesn’t let a single ounce of her personal political beliefs seep into her filings. She’s gone to bat plenty of times for the Parnell administration and undertook the effort to knock the salmon habitat initiative off the ballot, successfully getting its most egregious parts struck from the version that appeared on the ballot.
“It’s that really ugly side of the Republican party,” one person said of the whole situation. “It’s the staunch hard-right that doesn’t represent most Alaskans.”
Not quite over
Not every department head has shown as much attention to their employees as Clarkson has, and many are still nervously awaiting the outcome of the resignation letter process, which we’ve heard as requiring employees to essentially “kiss the ring” of the Dunleavy administration and the Dunleavy agenda—even well beyond the scope of the employee’s field of work.
Here’s what one employee had to say about the change:
“We were doing really great work for Alaska. So no matter what, my job as I know it is gone. I’m afraid what they’ll ask me to do will make the state worse off.”
Have a good weekend everybody. Hug a dog (or two) and be kind. The next four years will need it.