Election official rejects effort to recall Gov. Dunleavy

Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Juneau, Alaska (AP) - A state election official has cut short a fight over whether Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy should be recalled from office, saying Monday that the effort by his critics is legally insufficient.

The decision by Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai can be challenged in court. She said she based it on the legal opinion of Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, a Dunleavy appointee, who found the reasons listed for the recall were "factually and legally deficient."

Critics of the Republican governor said he is incompetent and has recklessly tried to cut spending, while his supporters saw a politically motivated attempt to undo the last election.

Dunleavy has drawn parallels between himself and President Donald Trump, casting himself as a chief executive trying to implement an agenda of smaller government and resource development while facing attacks from the left.

Trump, the subject of an impeachment inquiry, has defended Dunleavy on Twitter.

The battle comes as Alaska, long reliant on oil to help pay for government expenses, is facing budget deficits. Alaska doesn't have a personal income tax or statewide sales tax.

Two governors — Gray Davis in California in 2003 and Lynn Frazier in North Dakota in 1921 — have been recalled by voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2012, then-Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election in Wisconsin.

Dunleavy, elected last fall with 51% of the vote, has had a rocky year marked by lawsuits, fights with lawmakers and unions, and public outcry over budget vetoes that helped fuel the recall push.

Dunleavy "lacks a basic understanding of his own constituents and what we care about: respect for separation of powers, responsible planning for economic stability and competent decision-making that makes Alaska a great place to live," according to a statement from 15 leaders of the recall group, including a union official, coal company chairman and a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention.

Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner, in response to interview requests by The Associated Press dating to early October, said time for "as complete an interview as possible" likely wouldn't be available until later in November.

At an October political event and in interviews with conservative outlets, Dunleavy said he is following through on his agenda of cutting government spending while his foes want to undo the election.

"I think I induce stress in others, to be honest with you," the former state senator from Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla told a GOP audience, sharing with them a website run by a group called Stand Tall with Mike that's taking donations to oppose the recall.

It's unclear who is funding the campaigns for and against Dunleavy because that information generally does not have to be made public yet.

Claire Pywell, who manages the recall campaign, said the recall push is bipartisan. Lindsay Williams, listed as chair of the recall opposition group, declined to comment.

Recall Dunleavy said as part of an initial phase it had gathered 49,006 signatures within weeks when 28,501 signatures were needed.

Dunleavy won office in a race in which his predecessor, independent Bill Walker, stopped campaigning weeks before the election after his lieutenant governor resigned over what Walker described as an inappropriate overture to a woman. The race included Democrat Mark Begich. Walker had been elected in 2014 with support from Democrats.

The largest bloc of registered voters in Alaska is politically unaffiliated.

Former Walker aides Scott Kendall and Jahna Lindemuth are legal advisers to the recall campaign. Craig Richards, who preceded Lindemuth as Walker's attorney general, is representing Stand Tall with Mike.

In an opinion piece, Richards called the recall effort "a misguided distraction from the hard work of governance necessary to right our fiscal ship."

Among its claims, the pro-recall group says Dunleavy violated the law by not appointing a judge within a required time frame, misused state funds for partisan online ads and mailers, and improperly used his veto authority to "attack the judiciary."

Dunleavy cut from the court budget an amount the administration said was commensurate to state funding for abortions. This happened after the Alaska Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a state law and regulation seeking to define what constitutes medically necessary abortions for Medicaid funding.

The state is being sued over the issue. Attorney General Kevin Clarkson has said Dunleavy acted within his authority.

Dunleavy has defended the widespread cuts he proposed as governor, which went beyond those he promoted as a candidate, as a response to oil prices that weakened after the campaign and the fiscal situation.

He has noted that Walker failed to win support for new or higher taxes amid the deficit debate, and Walker faced backlash for cutting the size of the check residents get from the state's oil-wealth fund.

Dunleavy said his vetoes forced Alaskans to talk about what they value and said he listened to comments. He eventually backed off a $135 million cut in state support to the University of Alaska system, which the system president said would have been devastating, and agreed to a $70 million cut over three years.

Dunleavy also agreed to reverse cuts to certain early childhood learning and senior programs. But he cut Medicaid, and his administration is eyeing changes to the already depleted ferry system that serves many coastal communities.

Tuckerman Babcock, a former state GOP chair who was Dunleavy's chief of staff until this summer, said the messaging around Dunleavy's cuts could have been stronger but said the recall effort is political.

Dunleavy recently told Fox News he was confident the situation would die down "as people realize the decisions that we've made are actually going to improve the situation for Alaska."

Pywell said Alaskans remain upset.

"People are not cooling off. They don't trust him," she said.

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