Senator who often stood alone runs for state’s highest office

Former Wasilla state Sen. Mike Dunleavy is running to be the Republican nominee for Alaska’s governor. (Photo by Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

By the end of his time in the Alaska Senate, Wasilla Republican Mike Dunleavy often stood alone. Now he’s hoping that his sometimes solitary positions will draw support from across the state in his run for governor.

Listen now

When Dunleavy left the Senate majority in April 2016, he became the first senator in at least four decades who was outside either the majority or minority caucuses. He said he couldn’t support a budget that cut permanent fund dividends.

But the rest of his time in the Legislature was unusual in another respect. He’s the only majority senator in the past 30 years who was never the primary sponsor of a bill that became a law, according to state records. He’s unapologetic about it.

“My goal wasn’t to pass a lot of bills,” Dunleavy said. “My goal was to go down there, and in many cases, ensure that certain things didn’t happen to Alaskans, such as taxes. Worked hard at trying to preserve the PFD, the permanent fund, fell short. But once I get in as governor, I’m going to work at rectifying that issue.”

Dunleavy said he was effective in other ways, such as making changes to bills that affect education.

Dunleavy, 57, grew up in the former coal-mining city of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

“The economy was depressed in Scranton,” Dunleavy said. “And it was a working person’s town. My father was a mailman. He was a World War II vet. My mother was a clerk for the city. I had three brothers and I would say we grew up low middle-class. There wasn’t a lot that we needed, in terms of our parents taking care of us. I think we had a great childhood, a great family.”

After graduating from college, he said his interest in the outdoors and the state’s economy drew him to Alaska.

“Alaska was a beacon of hope in terms of economic activity,” Dunleavy said. “The state was actually booming. Oil was ramping up and reaching peak production until 1989. There was a robust timber industry in Southeast Alaska, lots of mining, lots of fishing going on. So for me, it was just a natural fit and quite frankly, I had thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I came to Alaska.”

Dunleavy taught for seven years, including time as the only teacher in Koyuk.

“It’s a tricky endeavor to be teaching multiple grade levels at one time in multiple subjects, and you have to be able to organize and do it the right way to get the outcomes that you want,” Dunleavy said.

Dunleavy has been married to his wife Rose for 31 years. She’s from Noorvik on the Kobuk River. They raised three daughters: the oldest works at Red Dog Mine, while the younger two are college students. One has an internship at Red Dog, while the youngest has a summer job there.

Dunleavy served as a school administrator, including two years as a superintendent of Northwest Arctic Borough schools. And he was on Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s school board before joining the Senate in 2013.

The signature issue of Dunleavy’s campaign may be his support for a full permanent fund dividend. It was set by a formula in state law until Gov. Bill Walker vetoed roughly half of two years ago. Walker cited the state’s fiscal crisis and shrinking savings. The Legislature then passed reduced PFDs the last two budgets.

Dunleavy said Alaska voters should have an advisory vote before any long-term change is made to PFDs.

“There’s money in the earnings reserve that, if we need to use that to cover shortfalls in government, we can do that,” Dunleavy said. “That’s always been in place. That’s been in place for decades, along with the calculation of the PFD.”

Oil revenue bailed the state out of fiscal crises repeatedly in the past.

Dunleavy sees developing the state’s resources as the answer now.

“Containing the operating budget, getting that oil online and continuing to explore and develop our resources – that was the basis of what Alaska was supposed to be about,” Dunleavy said. “If we get back to the basic principle, we can produce the revenue to get us through and get us, I think, on a path of sustainability.”

A year before resigning his Senate seat, Dunleavy proposed cutting a quarter of the state spending the Legislature controls, or more than a billion dollars. He’s now calling for spending growth, but keeping it to 2 percent a year. He cites the state’s improved outlook for the change.

Dunleavy’s been ahead in the polls. His Republican rival Mead Treadwell has criticized donations by his brother Francis Dunleavy, who lives in Texas, to a group backing Dunleavy’s candidacy. Dunleavy swats it away.

“I have a brother whose only concern is that he cares about his brother,” Dunleavy said.

Treadwell has pointed out that Francis led a J.P. Morgan unit that paid a $410 million settlement of government accusations of fixing electricity prices.

“I can assure Alaskans, there’s nothing illegal, immoral or unethical that’s occurring, with regard to a family member donating to a campaign to see another family member get elected,” Dunleavy said.

Dunleavy shot back that Treadwell held a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., and questioned what the donors had to gain. But he emphasized that he’s focusing on running a positive campaign.

The primary is on Aug. 21.