NEPA Native Serving As Alaska’s Governor
Alaska hooked Mike Dunleavy early in life.
The nation’s largest state by geography and its mostly untamed wilderness sat a whole country away from the North Scranton neighborhood where Dunleavy grew up, and deeply embedded itself in his mind as he grew to 6 feet 7 inches tall.
“I was always outside. When I lived in North Scranton, I would walk up to what they used to call Bell Mountain up there above Keyser Avenue,” Dunleavy said. “I’d walk all over the place. I’d spend as much time as I could out there with a bunch of our friends. I liked to go hunting, I liked to go fishing. ... As I got older, (I thought) the ultimate place in the country for wilderness is Alaska. (I) just started doing research, wanted to go. When I graduated from (College) Misericordia, I came up.”
It took about 35 years, but Dunleavy runs Alaska now. The 1979 Scranton Central High School graduate, who starred in basketball there and in college, won the Alaska governor election Nov. 6.
He took the oath of office for a four-year term Dec. 3, just three days after an earthquake shook the state, known for its breathtaking, if chilly, landscape.
“Pennsylvania is a beautiful state,” Dunleavy, 57, said. “Alaska is a spectacular state.”
At Misericordia, friends called him “Nature” because of his outdoors ways. They lived in off-campus housing, and Dunleavy raised chickens, ate their eggs and hunted squirrels for food.
After earning his degree in history in 1983, he headed northwest to fulfill his dream. His older brother, Francis, by then working in the timber industry in Portland, Oregon, had a friend who knew someone “at a logging camp in southeast Alaska on Prince Wales Island,” Dunleavy said.
“And so I took that and came up and spent some time doing that,” Dunleavy said.
He worked in the shop, helping change tires and greasing and fueling vehicles.
“I just fell in love with the place as soon as I got here,” he said. “I was a few credits short of my teaching certificate and went back and got those credits and came up permanently in 1984.”
He taught in western Alaska at first.
“Teaching is a form of public service. You want to help people. For me, it was a logical extension,” Dunleavy said.
He met an Inupiaq Eskimo named Rose. They married and had three daughters. In 20 years as an educator, he served as a teacher, principal and superintendent in some of the state’s most isolated regions.
By 2004, he was superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, which serves about 2,200 students, much of it north of the Arctic Circle.
He retired shortly after with a substantial pension and headed south. The Dunleavys settled near Wasilla, whose most famous resident is former town mayor and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008. Dunleavy said he used to run into her in the grocery store.
In 2009, he won a three-year term on the Matanuska-Susitna School Board, a school district of about 25,000 square miles, and was later elected board president.
Seeing the struggles of school districts, he kept wanting to move up into positions that held more power to fix their problems, he said. In 2012 and 2014, he won election to the state Senate. He announced his bid for governor in September 2017, dropped out for three months to correct a heart problem, then won the Republican primary by a 2-to-1 margin over the second-place finisher in a field of seven candidates. He won election by defeating the Democratic candidate, former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.
He had help from several large contributors, including his brother, Francis, who donated $400,000, according to the Anchorage newspaper.
Three days before he took office, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rattled Alaska. The aftershocks continue.
“We’re going to get through this,” he told fellow residents.
Perhaps it was symbolic. One columnist has called Dunleavy the state’s most conservative governor. He ran on a platform of cutting taxes and spending and reducing the size of government. He has advocated a constitutional amendment to allow spending public money on private or religious schools, according to an account in the Anchorage Daily News . He defended it as necessary to help struggling school systems. The move failed.
That might seem at odds with someone born into a Democratic family. His father, Edward, was a postal worker who, the governor said, sometimes “rolled his eyes” at his son’s political choices. His mother, Rose, a clerk at Scranton City Hall, was a fierce union leader.
He hasn’t returned to Scranton since his father died in 2012. He describes his parents as pro-life, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Democrats.
“I would say my parents taught all four boys to think on your own, don’t follow the herd, be an individual, and that’s going to serve you well,” the governor said. “But from my perspective, the Republican Party mirrored my values and philosophy. I’m pretty much an individual. I don’t like people telling me what to do. I don’t like aspects of government telling me what to do. Do I think government is evil or bad? No, not inherently, but if it’s allowed to get to a certain size and get fairly intrusive in one’s life, I don’t care for that.”
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