In Alaska–a state where residents know first-hand both the blessings of a beautiful environment and the value of natural resources–the contest between U.S. Senate candidates Tony Knowles (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R) has become something of a referendum on who can most effectively convince Eastern politicians that resource recovery can be compatible with environmental stewardship.
Alaskans Favor Resource Recovery
Statewide polls, collecting the opinions of the people most directly affected by oil and natural gas recovery in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), show more than two out of three residents of the state support such resource recovery. With ANWR recovery being blocked by East Coast senators thousands of miles away, both of Alaska’s U.S. Senate candidates have built their campaigns around the argument that a vote for them is a vote to tap a portion of ANWR’s wealth of natural resources.
“I think I have a record as one of the strongest advocates for ANWR, particularly in regards to helping change the attitude of people within the party that I belong to,” said Knowles at a June 1 press conference.
“While people do not dispute the fact that Knowles claims to favor ANWR … he’s part of a party that is very anti-ANWR,” countered Murkowski spokesman Elliot Bundy in the June 5 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “People need to take his claim that he can influence his party with a grain of salt.”
Job Creation Message Attractive
The I’m-more-pro-ANWR-than-you-are tone of the Alaska U.S. Senate race has been prevalent from the beginning. Knowles is taking great pains to remind Alaskans that his support for ANWR is longstanding and, at times, brash. As far back as February, before the campaign began to heat up, Knowles gave an impassioned pro-ANWR speech at a Washington, DC event celebrating Alaska.
“ANWR is our nation’s largest untapped source of oil, and responsible energy development in Alaska can be done in a way that protects the environmental values we cherish,” Knowles told the crowd. “And the tens of thousands of jobs ANWR development would create across the country can help us work our way out of the current jobless recovery.”
Knowles has fine-tuned his message, emphasizing now that because a majority of the East Coast senators who have blocked resource recovery in ANWR are Democrats, he, as a Democrat, would be better positioned than Murkowski to change their minds.
“If we don’t start talking to the people who oppose ANWR, we’ll never get the votes to get it passed,” said Knowles at the Washington event. “That’s why I’m running for the U.S. Senate.”
On the other side of the aisle, Murkowski’s longstanding support of resource recovery in ANWR is beyond dispute. Accordingly, her message is more focused on tying Knowles to Eastern Democrats who have blocked ANWR and who are Knowles’ closest political allies.
“When Knowles was governor for eight years, is there anyone who would stand up and say he led the fight against ANWR?” asked Murkowski, as reported in the June 15 Greenwire. “The Democratic governor of the state of Alaska was not able to convince his Democratic president [not] to veto ANWR. To me, that’s not Tony being out front leading the [charge] on ANWR.”
“Tony Knowles is the only candidate with a record of standing up to both parties on opening ANWR,” responded Knowles spokesman Matt McKenna.
Democrat Candidate Rebukes Kerry
To support that claim, the Knowles campaign has touted Knowles’ public rebuke of Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, regarding Kerry’s opposition to resource recovery in ANWR. On April 20, Knowles told the press, “With all due respect to the party’s nominee, on the issue of responsible development of the coastal plain and meeting America’s energy needs, John Kerry is just wrong.”
Murkowski countered that Kerry’s repeated public condemnations of ANWR resource recovery since the Knowles rebuke show how little influence Knowles will have over his fellow Democrats. To the contrary, argued the Murkowski campaign, a vote for Knowles will merely reward and empower the party that has imposed its will on the people of Alaska.
“If Tony Knowles goes to Washington, he leaves Alaska and joins forces with the Kennedy-Kerry team, who wouldn’t know a caribou if it dropped in for a bowl of clam chowder,” stated a pro-Murkowski television ad that aired in the state this summer.
Democrat’s Allies Impeding Makeover
Complicating matters for Knowles, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, a prominent Democrat, is leading a campaign to close additional large sections of the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR) from resource recovery. The campaign by environmental activists and a number of Eastern politicians has enraged many local residents, who fear it will further hamstring Alaska’s economy. Alaskans point out that the oil- and natural gas-rich NPR was set aside in 1923 specifically for resource recovery.
Babbitt argues the Teshekpuk Lake region of the NPR should be rendered off-limits to resource recovery because the lake is “the largest, most productive freshwater lake” in northern Alaska. Discovery of a massive petroleum reserve in the lake region has reenergized oil production efforts and promises to reenergize the local economy. “We are at the 11th hour, but it’s not too late for public opinion to be heard to prevent this from happening,” said Babbitt, according to the Reuters news service.
Knowles is attempting to distance himself from the Babbitt campaign and other anti-recovery statements made by his Eastern allies by publicly campaigning with other Democrats who favor resource recovery in ANWR and other such regions of the country. In a July 8 press conference, Knowles appeared in Washington, DC with Chris John, a U.S. Senate candidate from Louisiana, and Brad Carson, a U.S. Senate candidate from Oklahoma. John and Carson are both Democrats who agree with Knowles on ANWR.
“We support changing the tone in the U.S. Senate,” said Knowles at the press conference. “We’re putting partisanship and special interests on notice: We’re coming to town.”
“We need more Democrats in the Senate willing to work across the political aisle,” Carson said. “Having Democrats willing to stand up for strong energy policy will make a difference.”
Polls show the race between Knowles and Murkowski remains very tight. A KTUU television poll released September 7 showed Knowles with 45.6 percent and Murkowski with 44.5 percent of the vote.
James Hoare ([email protected]>) is managing attorney at the Syracuse, New York office of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon.
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