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Episode 68: Changing of the Guard

By KTVA Alaska 4:38 PM August 14, 2016

One of the things we try to do on Frontiers is go beyond the sound bites, especially when it comes to politics.

Some of the highlights on this week’s Frontiers program:

– Profile of House Speaker Mike Chenault.

– Guests: Tim and Michael Bradner — The brothers publish the Alaska Legislative Digest and write extensively about state politics and resource development. Michael also served as House Speaker from 1975-76.

– KTVA’s Liz Raines has a preview of the races to watch in Tuesday’s primary.

This week we profiled Rep. Mike Chenault, who has served as House Speaker for a record eight years. Only one other lawmaker has come close to Chenault’s record — the late Ben Grussendorf, a Sitka lawmaker who served three terms as Speaker, but not consecutively as Chenault has done.

Chenault has worked with three governors as House Speaker: Sarah Palin, Sean Parnell and Bill Walker. During his time as a state representative, he’s also served under Tony Knowles and Frank Murkowski, upping that total to five governors.

He has been a player in Alaska politics through good times and bad times — and has had the stamina to do a job described as herding cats and turtles — longer than anybody else. Although Chenault is running for office in pursuit of a 9th term, he says he won’t seek the Speaker’s job again, even if voters elect a Republican majority in the House.

Both Democrats and Republicans believe it’s possible a bipartisan coalition will take charge come January — a complete changing of the guard.

So given the political landscape, we thought this would be a good time to look back on Chenault’s political career, to find out what makes him tick, and why he and Gov. Bill Walker are political polar opposites, despite their similar backgrounds.

Both are old Alaskans, no strangers to manual labor, and come from families with an extremely strong work ethic.

Chenault gave us a full day of his time, something that’s very unusual to get with any of Alaska’s high-level political players. For example, the biggest single block of time we’ve ever had with Gov. Walker is about an hour-and-a-half. Usually, reporters get to spend about 20 minutes with the governor. The same is true for Chenault.

Our day with Mr. Speaker, as lawmakers refer to him in session, started out early with breakfast at Louie’s Restaurant in Kenai. He told us to go ahead and get a table. He would meet up with us later and asked us to order him two eggs over-easy with a side of sausage and a soda. When I told the waitress Chenault would join us, and began to give the order, she finished my sentence.

While Chenault is quite predictable when it comes to ordering breakfast, he seems to be more mysterious in his political moves. But maybe not, if you understand what makes him tick. Although he is a chain smoker, he was quite careful to never smoke in view of the camera. I think he knew we wanted a shot of that, but he was quite cagey in that regard.

We were curious about how his personality has shaped his career in the legislature and how someone with so much political experience couldn’t avert this year’s meltdown in the House over the state’s fiscal crisis.

Opponents and supporters alike may disagree on his leadership skills and political beliefs, but there’s no doubt — by simply holding onto the House Speaker’s job for so many years, he’s had a tremendous influence.

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