The Alaska Senate seat once held by Wasilla Republican Mike Dunleavy remained empty Thursday as the latest appointee by Gov. Bill Walker withdrew from consideration amid an uproar over posts from his Facebook account.
Tom Braund, the Sutton man appointed late Wednesday, sent a letter to Walker midday Thursday saying he was heeding God’s words that relationships are more important than institutions, adding that his “closest friend” needed his attention.
“I am her provider,” Braund wrote. He added later: “She is MY special interest.”
Braund, in his letter, said his withdrawal had “nothing to do with the media trying to smear me with anything they think is dirt in their quiver.”
But it came as news stories highlighted an array of provocative posts from his Facebook account.
One listed points supporting a theory of why some men have dogs instead of wives, among them that “a dog will let you put a studded collar on it without calling you a pervert.”
Another accused Sen. Lisa Murkowski of treason. A third suggested that medical workers who perform abortions should be “executed with scissors cutting their hearts out.”
And in an anti-abortion “position statement” that Braund posted last month, he claimed to have memories preceding his birth.
“I remember being in the womb and can testify that I could think, feel, see and hear,” he wrote.
Braund’s withdrawal capped a head-spinning 24 hours in Alaska’s political world. And it left unresolved the feud between Walker and Alaska Republicans over how to fill the Mat-Su Senate seat once held by Dunleavy, who represented one of the state’s most conservative districts.
The seat has been empty since Jan. 15, when Dunleavy resigned to challenge Walker in the November gubernatorial election. From the start, the replacement process seemed destined for trouble. Walker left the GOP to run for governor as an independent in 2014 and Republicans are now targeting him for defeat.
State law allows governors to fill legislative vacancies with anyone who belongs to the same party as the person who left the seat. But traditionally — though not exclusively — governors have chosen from a list of three candidates provided by party members from the unrepresented legislative district.
Walker’s first choice to replace Dunleavy, Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman Randall Kowalke, wasn’t on Mat-Su Republicans’ list.
Those Republicans ranked Kowalke, who’s described himself as a “centrist,” as eighth out of 11 applicants for Dunleavy’s old seat. Their three favored candidates, like Dunleavy, leaned more toward the GOP’s tea party wing.
But Kowalke could only be seated with support from more than half of Senate Republicans in a confirmation vote. And those senators rejected Kowalke on Wednesday morning, chiding Walker for not sticking to the list of recommendations by the Mat-Su GOP.
By Wednesday evening, Walker had appointed Braund, who was on the Republicans’ list. On Thursday, his chief of staff, Scott Kendall, made it clear that the governor was no fan of Braund nor the other two GOP suggestions, teacher Todd Smoldon of Willow and Sutton state Rep. George Rauscher.
“The governor absolutely does not endorse any of the three nominees sent to him by the Republican Party, including Thomas Braund,” Kendall said in a prepared statement. “The Senate Republicans rejected the governor’s nominee — Randall Kowalke — and then publicly demanded that he appoint one of the three nominees endorsed by Party officials.”
Following Braund’s withdrawal, the Republicans said they were replacing their suggestion of Braund with a Palmer woman, Vicki Wallner.
Wallner says she’s a retired small-business owner. She’s also the founder of a Facebook group called “Stop Valley Thieves,” and a strident critic of Senate Bill 91, a criminal justice overhaul that Walker signed into law in 2016.
By Thursday evening, Walker announced that he’d rejected the other recommended Republicans, Smoldon and Rauscher, and asked Babcock for a pair of additional names.
A spokesman for Walker, Austin Baird, said Rauscher “disqualified himself” when a sign appeared on his Capitol office door that referenced a former Democratic legislator alleged to have slapped a Juneau woman in his hotel room.
Afterward, the Democrat, Zach Fansler of Bethel, sent the woman a text message apologizing for venturing into “kink BDSM” — a reference to sexual practices involving bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism.
A sign was subsequently posted on Rauscher’s door that said: “BDSM FREE ZONE.” Baird said that sign “made light of a violent attack of a woman by a former state lawmaker.”
“More than ever, the state Capitol needs people who will maintain a level of political decorum rather than trying to score political points,” Baird said.
Rauscher, in a phone interview, said the poster was “a statement that hiding behind BDSM as a reason for hitting a woman is wrong and has no place here amongst us.”
If Walker took issue with the sign, Rauscher added, “that probably should have been addressed in a conversation.”
“I didn’t realize it was a joke, but I think everything that you say can be construed in a different way,” Rauscher said. “It was a Sunday afternoon. It was up there for 40 minutes.”
Baird would not explain why the governor would not appoint Smoldon other than to say all three original Republican suggestions were “unacceptable.”
Smoldon, a 49-year-old Willow man, taught for 17 years at Anchorage’s East High School. The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman’s publisher, Dennis Anderson, described him in an opinion piece this week as “smart, articulate and entrenched in conservative values,” even if his lack of political experience could be disqualifying.
Smoldon said he was perplexed by Walker’s reticence to appoint him, especially after a 40-minute interview in Juneau with the governor and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott that he described as “very cordial.”
“If you’re trying to figure out why my name isn’t being mentioned or why he hasn’t said why I’m disqualified, you are definitely not alone in that,” Smoldon said in a phone interiew. “I’m a conservative. I’m a Republican. I share philosophical political views with Sen. Dunleavy. But one of the people who wrote a letter of recommendation for me to the governor was a colleague of mine who’s very liberal.”
He added: “I’m not a radical rabid.”
Babcock, the state Republican Party chair, suggested that Walker was holding out for a candidate more aligned with the governor’s centrist politics. That’s not realistic, given the Mat-Su’s conservative tilt, Babcock added.
“The governor should not be looking at this as an opportunity to increase his supporters in the Senate by one,” Babcock said. “He’s not going to get somebody who agrees with him politically. That’s not what this is about — if that’s how he sees it, he’s going to have to start looking at this through a different lens.”
Baird said that isn’t Walker’s goal.
“The priority now is finding someone who will serve the district honorably, because the session is underway and key votes are on the horizon,” he said.