On Tuesday, voters will decide which Republican candidate will face off against Mark Begich in a closely watched Senate primary. But while it’s gotten less attention, there’s also a contested statewide race on the Democratic ballot for the office of lieutenant governor. One of the two candidates is Hollis French, a state senator who is giving up his seat in the Legislature to run for the job.
It will be French’s sixth time running for office, with most of those races to keep his Senate seat. In 2010, he ran for governor but lost in the Democratic primary. Last year, he decided not to run for reelection and instead considered another run for governor. He even put in paperwork and had signs made. But he wasn’t the only one who wanted the job, so he dropped down to the second ranking seat in the executive branch.
“You know, I couldn’t see going through a destructive primary with Bryon Mallott,” says French. “I respect him. I think he’s got a broader reach.”
The Lieutenant Governor job isn’t a terribly powerful one. The office oversees the Division of Elections, signs regulations, protects the state seal, and can help counsel the governor. But mostly, it puts you next in line to run the state should anything happen.
French says even so, he’d rather try for the executive branch than the Legislature at this point.
“If you really want to make a change, that’s the place to do it — and probably not inside the Legislature,” says French.
For the past year, French led the Senate’s Democratic minority, serving as the voice of the loyal opposition to the Republican majority caucus. During the past Legislature, French introduced eight bills, including one to reduce student loan payments and another to legalize same-sex marriage. Just one — a bill to expand the state’s pre-kindergarten program — even got a hearing.
But for much of his time in office, French was part of the ruling caucus. As a member of the Senate bipartisan coalition, he chaired committees and actually had the power to move legislation through the body. French gets a little nostalgic about it.
“The coalition was really a godsend, and it was really a big leap for me,” says French. “I mean we shook hands with people that I had been diametrically opposed to and fighting for the past four years.”
The coalition fell apart in 2012 when a mix of Democrats and moderate Republicans were voted out of office, after new redistricting maps came out. Put in a more conservative district, French barely held onto his seat, winning by just 51 votes. The Republican – state representative Mia Costello — running in the West Anchorage district he represents is even stronger than the opponent he faced last time. But while Costello was initially viewed as difficult to beat, the Democrat who ended up filing in the district, Clare Ross, has been one of the top fundraisers this year.
Even though that race is now considered competitive, French says he doesn’t regret not defending his seat.
“None of us are irreplaceable,” says French. “I’ve really enjoyed my time there, but it really feels like I’ve made the right decision.”
Now, French is running against schoolteacher Bob Williams to make up the bottom half of a gubernatorial ticket. Should French win the primary, the show won’t be about him in November. And even if he does end up on the ticket, it’s a tough race for the Democrats against Republican Gov. Sean Parnell. On top of Parnell’s incumbency advantage and conservative tilt in the state, it’s a three-way race with independent candidate Bill Walker pulling from the same demographic as Mallott. French thinks that Parnell can be beat, though, especially if the oil tax referendum passes next week.
French also thinks he could help strengthen the Democratic ticket, not just as a candidate but pragmatically. After the primary, the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor essentially merge their accounts, and French had nearly $70,000 cash on hand as of Tuesday. In contrast, Mallott has about $40,000 left in his war chest, after spending much of the $550,000 he’s raised on staffing, polling, and travel. Parnell is heading into November with $300,000 on hand, and Walker has $100,000 available.
“My campaign office is my Subaru,” says French. “I do a huge amount work out of this office. You know, I’m a fiscal conservative. I do not like to waste campaign money. You have to spend campaign money communicating with voters, and every penny you spend that’s not toward that communication is not the most effective use of a campaign dollar.”
As a political newcomer, Williams has had to spend nearly all of his campaign money on the primary. Republican candidate Dan Sullivan, who has a nominal primary challenge, has nearly $80,000 cash on hand to bring to the Parnell campaign.
Even if French loses his primary or the general, he says he’s okay if this turns out to be the end of his political career.
“You know, we’re not going to starve to death. I’ve got a law degree, I can practice law,” says French. “There’s great mountains out there. I like to climb mountains. There’s all kinds of stuff to do.”
And plus, he says, in this state, old politicians never really disappear.