Walker looking forward to working with Trump
Donald Trump's campaign and transition have proven politically vexing for Alaska's congressional delegation, which has faced tough questions about support for Cabinet appointees and Trump's divisive executive actions in his first 10 days in office.
But Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who won election as an independent working with the Alaska Democratic Party, never gave or withdrew an endorsement of Trump or Hillary Clinton. He won't say which candidate got his vote and so far has been careful about criticizing any of Trump's executive actions, including the one on immigration.
Instead, Walker says after two years of clashes over natural resource policies with former President Barack Obama that he's looking forward to working closely with Trump's appointees.
"Who I voted for is not as relevant as my relationship with the new administration," Walker said in an interview. "I know we're going to have a different opportunity with this administration than we did the last."
With Trump working alongside a Republican Congress, Alaska politicians are suddenly much closer to winning long-sought concessions from the federal government, like permission to build a road through a national wildlife refuge on the Alaska Peninsula and opening 1.5 million acres of another, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil and gas development.
But Walker has also taken some progressive stances at odds with the vision laid out by Trump and congressional Republicans — particularly his support for expansion of the Medicaid health care program, a component of the Affordable Care Act that the GOP wants to overturn.
And some of the Democrats who have loaned Walker state-level political support say they'll be watching what he does to defend their priorities.
"Some of this stuff is pretty outrageous — the Affordable Care Act affects a lot of people," said Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks. "You can't ignore the things you don't like just because there's one or two things you like."
Walker so far has extended a warm welcome to the new administration. He wrote a Dec. 1 letter congratulating Trump on his election; in it, he also suggested potential areas for collaboration and invited the new president to visit Alaska.
Walker also encouraged Trump to appoint an Alaskan as his interior secretary. After Trump instead chose a Montana Republican congressman, Ryan Zinke, Walker sought out the appointee for a pair of chats in Washington, D.C., during Trump's inauguration — where Walker said he learned that Zinke's wife, Lolita, once lived in Anchorage and worked at the Lucky Wishbone restaurant.
"I was very, very pleased with his attitude about states' opportunities to have access on federal land," Walker said.
In an interview, Walker's natural resources commissioner, Andy Mack, listed several areas where the state was frustrated by Obama's policies and is looking for new cooperation from Trump's administration.
The Alaska Peninsula road through the Izembek refuge, designed to ease King Cove's access to Cold Bay's jet runway, is one top priority, Mack said.
So are opening ANWR and scheduling oil and gas lease sales in federal waters off Alaska's Arctic coast, Mack said. Walker's administration also has other, lower-profile goals, like resolving lingering disputes with federal land managers over control of rivers in Alaska.
"Where we were frustrated, we'll go back to the table with, in many cases, often an identical ask," Mack said.
While the state's natural resource managers are looking forward to new openings under Trump, the prospects are less certain for health care. At a legislative hearing last week, Walker's health commissioner, Val Davidson, suggested that Trump's plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act — which included the provisions for Medicaid expansion — could wreak havoc on Alaska.
"Fifty thousand Alaskans now have some kind of coverage either through Medicaid or through marketplace plans. So, how are those folks going to be covered now?" Davidson asked. "What's going to happen with the economic impact?"
Walker sent a letter to the U.S. House's GOP leadership last month asking them to "move forward carefully" on health care reform, and he said he plans to work with the National Governors Association to make sure the state's interests are represented in Washington.
But Walker didn't bring up health care in his December letter to Trump. And in a radio appearance Tuesday on "Talk of Alaska," he sounded resigned to the idea that the expanded Medicaid program could be curtailed.
"If it reached the point that we can't afford that anymore, I guess what I would have to do is just celebrate the fact that we had 27,000 Alaskans that had better health coverage for a period of time," he told host Lori Townsend. "And so I'll take that as a good thing for Alaska — and hopefully, it'll be able to continue on."
Walker also was careful about registering objections to Trump's executive action closing U.S. borders to refugees and people from seven predominantly Muslim nations. He initially issued a three-sentence statement Monday saying that he was "paying close attention to national events while working to ensure a stable fiscal future for Alaska."
He then told Townsend on Tuesday that the border closure wasn't "well thought out" and caught people off guard.
Walker's early responses to Trump may not satisfy Alaska's Democrats and those offended by the new president's policies, but they make sense politically, said David Ramseur, who worked as chief of staff to former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and, before that, as an aide to former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.
In a phone interview, Ramseur cited Trump's volatility and his tendency to "hold grudges" against critics.
"As offended as I think most Alaskans are by these executive orders, it seems to me the raw politics are that it's not in Walker's interests to take Trump on over those issues," Ramseur said. "I think he's more wise to keep his powder dry and pick his battles."
One particular risk Walker would face by publicly criticizing Trump is Alaska's share in the president's promised infrastructure program, said Gerry McBeath, an emeritus political science professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Lawmakers in states less dependent on federal revenue — like Washington, where Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, is suing Trump over his immigration order — have more political flexibility, McBeath said.
Walker, McBeath said, is not going to say anything "that would prejudice the fiscal interests of the state." He's also likely to be eyeing re-election, which is less than two years away, McBeath said.
"And that means paying close attention to making sure the state is solvent — and is not being written off," McBeath said.
This story first appeared in Alaska Dispatch News and is reprinted here with permission.