Independent Bill Walker explains why he’s running for governor

Bill Walker and Heidi Drygas are independent candidates for governor and lieutenant governor of Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Walker Drygas for Alaska)

Independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker was campaigning in Juneau on Monday. The former governor answered questions from Jeremy Hsieh about abortion rights, running the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation and some of the things he says he will handle differently from the incumbent if elected.

You can listen to a previous interview with Democratic candidate Les Gara here.

Listen:


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeremy Hsieh: Can you introduce yourself and just say why you run?

Bill Walker: I’m running because I think we’re better than what we’ve done, and we’ve spent too much time fighting for what we don’t have and not celebrating and building the state like what we should do. …

One of the reasons I’m running is because of the bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s available to all states. The current governor does not seem very interested in this. In fact, he did not mention it during the state of the state, nor any acknowledgment to members of our delegation, such as Senator Murkowski, who played an important role in this regard. So this is an opportunity for Alaska that we never had.

I mean, to me, this funding — which is between $100 billion and $300 billion, you have to apply for it, you have to compete with every other state for that money — could be transformational for the Alaska. I liken it to, you know, building the Alcan highway or the trans-Alaska pipeline during the energy crisis.

Jeremy Hsieh: A question has been raised about Roe v. Wade, with its cancellation and the access to abortion decided by the States. You said you were pro-life, and (running mate) Ms. Drygas said she was pro-choice. But as a campaign, you are committed to protecting reproductive rights. How did you both come to this position?

Bill Walker: Well, in several ways. It’s the law of the land. The Alaska constitution provides this protection of the right to privacy. And so our commitment is to respect the laws of the Constitution. And we certainly will. And so nothing would change under our tenure.

You know, one of the things we focus on, though, is not just laws, but what can we do to minimize the need for abortions? And when I accepted the Medicaid expansion, abortion rates dropped 14% in Alaska because 70,000 Alaskans had health care coverage that they wouldn’t otherwise have. And the state budget went down at the same time.

So there are things we can do. We will certainly introduce legislation for, you know, birth control on a 12 month basis, rather than just for 90 days as is the case now. So, we will focus on the things to do that would reduce the need for it.

Jeremy Hsieh: Is it difficult for you personally to support these political decisions?

Bill Walker: It’s not because, you know, even though I’m pro-life, I definitely want to reduce abortions. I think everyone wants to do that. So let’s focus on what we can do about it. And so nothing will change other than the fact that we will continue to look for ways that, as we have done in the past, to reduce the need for this to happen in the first place.

Jeremy Hsieh: Towards the end of your first term, you told a reporter that you needed to cut wood, maybe build a cabin, like some kind of therapy to get away from the pressure of being governor and think. Did you end up building a cabin?

Bill Walker: In fact, I built a lot more than the cabin. I added to our house in Anchorage, I added 1,000 square feet to our commercial building in Valdez. And I built a cabin. I call it construction therapy. I am a carpenter, my passion. And so I really appreciated (that) I didn’t need 21 votes in the House or 11 in the Senate to do what I was doing. And it was very good. I enjoyed it immensely.

Jeremy Hsieh: And did you come out of that process with some kind of, you know, deep conclusions about your first term?

Bill Walker: Well, it was a tough change. I mean, when you have, you know, 26 dollars of oil (a barrel) and you have a $4 billion hole in the budget, it’s not a nice time to be the governor of this great state . But, you know, we have made significant changes to our financial situation. And so yes, it was a difficult time. But it was by far the greatest honor of my life.

Jeremy Hsieh: You mentioned fiscal stability. And of course, as a state, we rely heavily on the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation to help us provide that stability. And there’s been a shake-up at the Permanent Fund Corporation involving your former attorney general. What do you think of the ousting of (former CEO) Angela Rodell?

Bill Walker: Well, I mean, it’s very unfortunate. I didn’t know her very well at first. I got to know her and loved her very much. And she did a phenomenal job. …And we still don’t have a replacement for Angela Rodell, which is rather shocking, given how important the Permanent Fund is to our economy today. …

You know, I would introduce legislation or join others in legislation that would change the method, the process of selecting and appointing people to this council. It’s too critical of a board of directors for it to be just a simple political appointment. So I would have a process, a verification process, similar to what we do with judges.

There is a verification process that we do through the Judicial Council, which verifies people and sends the names to the governor. So by the time it got to me – I nominated 27 judges – so by the time they got to me, I knew they were qualified, etc., and I went through all the different hoops to get there. … Certainly, we have seen more influence from the Governor than ever before.

Jeremy Hsieh: What is your position on the Permanent Fund dividend?

Bill Walker: I want to have the biggest possible dividend that is sustainable, but not at the expense of weakened government services like education and public safety. And also, not at the expense of having big taxes just for dividends. So I want it to be sustainable, I want it to be predictable, I want it to be something that we don’t fight every year in terms of the amount. The formula we have now is 42 years old, it needs to be looked at and come up with something that’s, you know, fair, reasonable, predictable, sustainable, and doesn’t compromise dividends for future generations.

Jeremy Hsieh: With oil prices, when you took office at the end of 2014, the price per barrel of oil was around $45 a barrel. Now it’s something like $100. How do you think the state should react?

Bill Walker: Well, you know, when that went down to $26 and we had to close about 40 public facilities, we had to end over 100 programs – laid off, I think, several thousand people, either through attrition or other. I think we have to be careful during high oil prices that we save for times when we don’t. We can’t pretend it’s always going to be there. So we just have to be responsible during low oil prices, as well as during high oil prices.

Jeremy Hsieh: Many of your political goals require acts of the legislature, which seems even more fractured than it was when you left office. How do you think you could pull through and achieve one of your goals?

Bill Walker: Well, I’ll do what I did last time. I mean, when I didn’t get along with the Legislature, I didn’t run ads against them on state tithes, which turned out to be illegal, which – everyone knew that. But I would do what I did before. I sat with him and spent time with him.

I mean, Speaker (of the House) (Mike) Chenault and I didn’t get along. We each had press conferences on each other, press releases on each other. And so I joined his bowling team in the legislative bowling league. And he was a little surprised to see me the first night I was there. We have become very good friends. He’s a great bowler, a phenomenal bowler. I’m not. And he’s from Nikiski, where they had a bowling alley, and Kenai. Valdez didn’t have a bowling alley. So we have become good friends, now, to this day.

So my style is just to reach out to those I have to work with and find common ground. And you know, I think that’s what Alaskans are looking for. We’re just, you know, solution-focused leadership. We’re doing this to solve problems, to solve problems – not to focus on another election.

Jeremy Hsieh: Telecommuting options for government workers have expanded a lot during the pandemic in recent years. Which is nice for some employees. But it’s also a concern for many people in Juneau, who worry about capital flight.

Bill Walker: You know, I think there’s a role for that. But if it is, I want to make sure it’s done in a way that doesn’t lose that interaction for the audience, because sometimes the audience needs to come in and interact with someone who’s occupying actually a post. And so it does not work the same on the concept of teleworking. So, you know, I’m definitely looking at all the options associated with that. But I want to make sure that we have enough of a presence everywhere that people have someone to sit down with when they have a problem that they need to talk about.

Jeremy Hsieh: Do Do you have any commitments or promises you can make regarding where you will physically be if elected governor, and where your commissioners and other state employees will be?

Bill Walker: Well, we absolutely love living in Juneau. I’m from Valdez, and yes, Anchorage now. But we like to go fishing and go fishing here, you know, in Byron’s boat. And we just enjoyed living in Juneau immensely.

And so, you know, it’s interesting, my running mate now, Heidi Drygas, I asked the commissioners to move to Juneau. And she did, as Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development. And met the love of her life, Kevin Sund, and now they have a wonderful home here. They have the love of their life, Olive, who is about 4 years old. … I would do the same. It would be home.

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