Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Lt. Gov. Parnell attend the governor's picnic in Anchorage, Alaska Saturday, July 25, 2009.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Lt. Gov. Parnell attend the governor's picnic in Anchorage, Alaska Saturday, July 25, 2009. Al Grillo/AP
Sean Parnell is Alaska's new governor.
Sean Parnell is Alaska's new governor. Al Grillo/AP
When former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin steps down as Alaska's governor Sunday, she'll leave a state still reeling from its sudden stardom in the 2008 presidential race. Stepping into her role is Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who tells NPR's Liane Hansen one of his biggest concerns is the erosion of the executive branch's ability to govern amid an avalanche of ethics complaints and records requests.
Liane Hansen: You know, you're taking office at a very challenging time for Alaska politics. First, Gov. Palin is still under investigation for possible violations of state ethics laws — she denies this. And some critics say that much of the state's work went undone during and after the presidential campaign. How do you get the state from underneath that kind of cloud?
Sean Parnell: Well, I think that's a misguided perception of what has been happening here. We've been moving forward on a natural gas pipeline, we've been focused on the economy and we're continuing to be focused on our families and young people. So, the characterizations that you've just made are not quite accurate of the reality that's here.
Do you plan to continue with Gov. Palin's initiatives or do you have your own agenda?
Both. I do plan to continue the governor's initiatives when it comes to our gas pipeline and our direction as fiscal conservatives, making sure the government lives within its means. I also will be focused on our families and young people and ensuring that our kids are educated in an excellent manner; that jobs are ready for them when they come out of school. So you're going to see, you know, I'm going to chart a similar direction when it comes to the economy and I will also be stepping out with some new initiatives that I'll be proposing.
Will you be reaching out to the other side of the aisle, to the Democrats in the state?
I already have been. In fact, this past week I've spoken with the Democratic leadership on a number of occasions, I have — that's the Democratic leadership in the legislature. I expect to have a good working relationship across the aisle and with colleagues of my own party as well.
Do you think the spotlight that has been trained on Alaska by Gov. Palin will stay on you or will it go away?
My hope is that the national spotlight will stay on Alaska in terms of what we can contribute to the nation. We've got huge reserves of natural gas that can provide cheaper energy for all of America. So my hope is that America will remain focused on Alaska as a contributor to our nation's economy and to individuals and communities.
And you feel that there's not a shadow that she has left behind that you're going to have to contend with?
Well, I am going to have to contend with frivolous ethics complaints, records requests, you know, from the past 2 1/2 years. We've had over 190 records requests since January when before we had an average of two records requests a month. So, we're still trying to dig out from underneath that and I think that's going to continue as we move forward.
Has she talked to you at all about her plans for the future?
She has not. You know, the pronouncements — the statements she's made to the press and the statements she's made nationally about wanting to effect change and help other people who want to do that as well, that's the extent of the conversations that we've had.
Have you discussed at all the ethics allegations with her? Has she discussed them with you?
Not the substance of them, but to the extent that they diminish the executive branch's ability to represent the people, I have had those discussions with her and indeed ... I made an announcement [Thursday] morning that I'm asking our attorney general for — or that I already did ask our attorney general for — recommendations on how to ensure that the executive branch is not further diminished by frivolous claims and by just the erosion of our ability to represent people on a day-to-day basis.
What do you consider to be the biggest problems facing your state, and by extension, the ones you're going to have to face as the new governor?
Well, for us, just like the rest of America, it is all about the economy. Our economy is starting to hurt. We're a little bit behind the rest of the U.S. in that Alaska is somewhat counter-cyclical. But we are starting to feel lost jobs and lost job creation. And so my focus is going to be on maintaining a stable investment climate here that will lead to job creation. I want to provide those opportunities for our young people to want to stay in Alaska and to work hard here into the future. I think we can do that, and that's our number one challenge.
What about your own plans? You've said you're going to run for a full term when this one ends in December 2010.
Yes, I did. And I've committed to that.
Even though you lost a congressional race to Don Young — very slim margin — last year. You're still tempted to test those waters again?
Well, I have announced I will seek election to this seat in 2010, and beyond that, I'm not really comfortable answering questions in this venue.
Sure. Do you know why Gov. Palin's popularity seemed to decline in Alaska?
I think you would have to ask others for that. I think anytime you're involved in a presidential race, you're going to see lines drawn differently than before, and I think that is in part what has happened. But frankly, she's still one of the most popular governors we've ever had. I know that in her heart she's still committed and focused on Alaskans and doing what is best for them. I've had numerous conversations about that with her. So that's kind of my reflection on it.
Do you think the presidential campaign did indeed affect what was going on in Alaska, and the things that needed to be done and could get done?
I think what it did is it changed our ability to work on them in the same manner as we had before, because of — for instance, [Wednesday's] breach of confidentiality in a preliminary investigator's report on an ethics complaint. When you have a continual abuse of the process here — when it comes to Freedom of Information Act requests, filing of ethics complaints, breaches of ethics processes — when you have that on an ongoing basis, that erodes the executive branch's ability to govern, and that is my chief concern going forward.
There are many people who don't know who you are, sir. Is it fair to say you're cut from the same political mold as Mrs. Palin?
It is true to say that I am a fiscal conservative. I'm very concerned about the future of our families and our young people. I have a history of legislative service — I've served in the state House of Representatives for four years and then in state Senate for four years. I've been in the private sector. I know what it's like to run my own small business, pay employees and pay my taxes there. So I come from a background of both public service and private-sector experience.