JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Gov. Bill Walker rejected the recommendations of Mat-Su Republicans in naming a replacement for former Sen. Mike Dunleavy on Friday, instead going off-list to choose a Matanuska-Susitna Borough assemblyman, Randall Kowalke of Willow, also a Republican.
Walker’s choice brought immediate howls of protest from Dunleavy, a possible Republican opponent of Walker in the November gubernatorial election, and from some Mat-Su legislators and the chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, who also has roots in the borough.
Dunleavy, whose resignation in January made the appointment necessary, said Walker’s decision was “an affront to these men and women who literally spent hundreds of hours vetting 11 different applicants for this seat.” Dunleavy said he quit to devote more time to his campaign for governor.
The leader of Republicans in the Senate, Pete Kelly from Fairbanks, struck a more conciliatory tone, calling Kowalke a “fine choice” — though he added he would “prefer” that Walker, an independent, had picked from the candidates chosen locally.
The Senate’s 13 Republicans will have to ratify Walker’s choice before Kowalke can join the body. Kelly, the Senate president, said a vote would take place next week.
Two of those Republicans, Sens. David Wilson and Shelley Hughes, both from the Mat-Su Borough, criticized Walker for going off-list. The governor should at least have asked local party officials to submit new names, they said.
“Picking someone not on the original list shows how little regard Gov. Walker has for the people of Mat-Su,” Wilson said in the prepared joint statement.
Republican Party state chairman Tuckerman Babcock predicted that Senate Republicans would reject Kowalke — not because they didn’t think he’d make a good candidate, but because of Walker.
“I think it’s very typical about how the governor operates,” Babcock said. “He’s a fly-by-night policy maker, which is probably why some of his policies have run into a brick wall and won’t go anywhere.”
While Babcock conceded that Walker followed the law on appointments, he broke with tradition by rejecting the three men chosen by the district: Rep. George Rauscher, Tom Braund and Todd Smoldon. Under party rules, the three were selected from 11 applicants in a meeting Jan. 15.
Kowalke was one of those applicants, but in a telephone interview said he “stood a snowball’s chance in hell” of getting chosen because of a feud he had with the chairman of one of the local Republican districts.
Kowalke was one of seven people Walker interviewed for the job, said Walker’s spokesman, Austin Baird.
In a prepared statement, Walker described Kowalke as “the best person” to represent Dunleavy’s sprawling Senate district, which includes Meadow Lakes, Talkeetna, Trapper Creek and Willow.
Kowalke is a retired businessman who worked in oil-field services and telecommunications, a former director of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance and serves on the board of the Resource Development Council, Walker said.