Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Why Did Frank Murkowski Leave the US Senate to Become Governor?

I’ve been waiting for someone to have a contest. The winner would be the person who would write the best answer to the question: Why Did Frank Murkowski Leave the US Senate to Run for Governor? I think we’d get a lot of interesting entries. But since the ADN said yesterday that Murkowski has returned to the state to get the gas pipeline going and no one seems to be holding that contest, I’m just going to have to post my answer here.

Being a US Senator is a nice job. There are only 100 of them. A lot of power concentrated in a few hands. Lots of people with money are suddenly their best friends. If you have any ego at all, you’ll find no shortage of strokers. The basic story, though this one was played out in the minor leagues, was spelled out in the testimony at the Anderson, Kott, and Kohring trials.

Being a Governor isn’t quite as cushy as being US Senator. While there are only 50 of them, they actually have to do things. They are the administrators of their states. What they do directly affects the lives of their constituents every day. Their decisions aren't hidden by 99 other deciders. And they aren’t way off in Washington where their constituents can’t see them. If they are out of state, tv announcers tell people if they are off at some tropical resort on a large corporations expense account.

No one in his right mind would leave the Senate to become a Governor.

But Senator Murkowski did just that. Why? If I recall correctly, one of his reasons was that he wanted to be back home in Alaska, near his grandchildren. (Has anyone seen him in Alaska since he left office? The ADN story yesterday says he'd been missing a year til he just showed up.)

I can’t tell you for sure. He hasn’t called me up to tell me. But after attending the Anderson, Kott, and Kohring trials last year, I’ve got a possible explanation that seems to be consistent with all the known facts. (Well, other people know a lot more of the facts than I do, but at least the ones I know.)

I think there was a careful plan. His job was to go back to Alaska and set up an Alaska natural gas pipeline deal that met the needs of the big three oil companies who don’t seem to have any interest in giving up the natural gas until they have used it to squeeze out every possible drop of profitable oil. Then, and only then, might this be of interest. So, it was with this in mind, that they talked Frank Murkowski into giving up his plush Washington DC life. So what does Frank get out of this? We don’t know what kind of promises they made him for future jobs or other sorts of payments when the various ethical statues no longer covered him. But there was one very public prize he got in his first months in office.

Lisa goes to Washington.

We know this was well thought out before he even announced he was running for governor. The oil controlled state legislature passed a bill that said, in case a US Senate seat becomes vacant, the newly elected governor, not the currently sitting governor, makes the appointment. Everyone knew the purpose was to give Murkowski the power to appoint his successor. If this hadn’t passed, retiring governor Tony Knowles would have appointed the next US Senator. But it did pass assuring that, if Murkowki won, he could appoint his daughter. If he lost, he was still in the Senate.

With a fool proof Republican majority in the state house and senate, Murkowski began closed door ‘negotiations’ with the big three oil companies for a petroleum profits tax, that was the first step toward the gas pipeline deal. The deal included a lot of sweetness for the oil companies, including a 40 year ban on any changes to the tax rate, without their having to guarantee anything. He told us he was negotiating hard to get the best deal for Alaska, except that no one but his closest staff got to sit in. So how do we know what they did behind those closed doors?

As the agreement, kept secret from the Republican legislators even, finally got to the legislature, in spring 2006, the governor kept delaying his announcement of whether he was going to run for a second term as governor. That upstart Republican controlled legislature began asking questions and the bill wasn’t sailing through. It was only at the very last minute, when his critical PPT bill was falling apart, and the deadline loomed for officially becoming a candidate, that Murkowski announced he was running for reelection. At this point, his popularity was lower than all but one other US governor, and polls had him trailing. Why oh why would any sensible politician run in that situation?

The only explanation I can think of that makes any sense is that he had a sweetheart deal with the oil companies that he was going to go back to Alaska and deliver them their tax deal and then their guaranteed “if it eventually looks ok for us, we’ll build the damn pipeline, but until we're ready you can’t harass us” pipeline deal. It should have been done by then, but it wasn’t, so he had to run again to finish the business. I don’t know what they all promised Frank. John Perkins, who wrote Confessions of an Economic Hitman, says that he (Perkins) got a do-nothing six figure job to NOT write a book about how multinational corporations operated. The limit on US Senators going to work for companies with connections to their Senatorial work would be over by then. I think he had a two year limit then after being governor. So in the meantime he could get, say, six $50,000 a pop speaking engagement a year for $200K, or the oil companies could find some friendly company that had no involvement that could hire Frank.

But it didn’t pass in the regular session. Frank had to call a special session. And it didn’t pass, the way they wanted it, in the special sessions. And there was still the pipeline deal to finish. But at least now, he would have until January to do the deed. But then the unthinkable happened. Frank lost the Republican primary. It was clear that he wouldn’t get away with the deal, even though there were rumors he was going to do it administratively. So what went wrong?

Frank couldn’t wait. He’d gotten too used to all the perks and to everyone agreeing with whatever he said. Getting Lisa her Senate seat riled a number of folks, including Republicans - some who just thought it was unseemly, others who had coveted the position themselves. Then he just couldn’t wait for his own private jet. He didn’t care what anyone thought. Then he went on to rile a bunch of people by cutting the Longevity Bonus and various other actions that left few people on his side.

Frank, I’m guessing, thought he could take all these politically unpopular actions because he knew he wasn’t going to run again. He would have delivered his part to the oil companies and then they would deliver whatever it was they had promised to him. His life would be sweet and rich. His daughter would be in the US Senate. All would be well in his world

While the oil companies worked directly with the governor, their intermediary, Bill Allen was taking care of the legislature. But they didn’t count on how obtuse Frank could be and how badly his actions would antogonize the electorate and other Republicans. And no one could have counted on a former small town mayor, a former jock and beauty queen no less, who would stand up to the party bosses and call them on their corruption. Well, maybe they could have imagined that, but they couldn’t have imagined that she would not only get away with it, but that she would rally the voters to her cause.

In the end, he couldn’t deliver. Are they going to reward him anyway? In most years, we would never know. But this year we have the FBI checking out all sorts of things, and there is a chance we might find out if my story bears any resemblance to what actually took place.

And now he's back negotiating. As who? As what? Well, clearly they must have offered him something really good and he's not going to give up that easy. Of course, there's also the possibility that he only has the state's best interests in mind and he sees Sarah screwing things up, so he's back, like Daddy, to fix the mistakes us voters (like rebellious, immature children) made by electing Sarah.


  1. The best, most serious article written on this subject. Excellent work, Steve!

    My short version:

    Frank Murkowski left the US Senate to advance his family dynasty on two fronts. He came back to Alaska to get arrested.

  2. At the present time the oil companies don't want the pipeline or they would be more cooperative. The gas is money in a stable bank that continues to grow in value. Get the oil and gas out of the unstable countries while they can (Russia et al) When they "Nationalize" then go get Alaska gas.
    Also they want to control the pipeline as then they can s@#ew the state on tariffs as they die on the oil line.
    I wonder when Frank will get indited.

  3. Phil, if it really is the best on this topic, it's only because no one else has tackled the topic head on. All I did was take what everyone knows and try to make sense of it. What I'm waiting for is someone who really knows what went on behind the scenes to clue us all in.

    I suspect that Murkowski, like Anderson, Kott, and Kohring belived and still believes that he's done nothing wrong. His only goal in his mind has been to do what is best for Alaska. If he picks up a few perks while doing that, it's merely a token thank you for all his hard work.

    We all believe what's most convenient for us to believe, don't we?

    Anon, that makes lots of sense. I've also heard that (I know I'm not going to get this quite right, but someone can make the necessary corrections) since they use the pressure of the natural gas to help extract the oil, they don't want the gas to go until they've pumped that last profitable drop of oil out. Then they will be ready to let go of the gas.

  4. Another theory (one not necessarily incompatible to those previously stated):

    Ted Stevens realized awhile back that he wasn't going to be around forever, and he couldn't bear the thought of Frank as Alaska's senior senator (a more incompetent, incapable senator is hard to imagine). So he laid it on the line for Frank: Leave DC and let's get someone younger and smarter in the Senate so that when Uncle Ted retires in 2014 we'll have a rising star in line for committee chairmanships.

    And Frank's ego wouldn't let him just retire...

  5. His arogance never ceases to amaze me

  6. I was told by someone in Texas that
    Frank when he left Alaska after losing the election flew to Texas first, got his pay off, then flew to New York.


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