DUNLEAVY DOESN’T HAVE A MOMENT TO LOSE
Gov. Michael Dunleavy needs a press secretary and a speechwriter. He also needs a crew of affable grammarians who can answer the mountain of unanswered constituent letters piling up in his office.
What Dunleavy needs, it seems, is a massive communications makeover. Without it, he’s left to his own devices in communications, and that would spell trouble. Trouble like what he ran into when a handful of protesters who stole the spotlight from him at Alaska Federation of Natives last week.
Dunleavy is capable as a communicator, partly because he was a teacher for many years, mostly in rural Alaska.
He’s a policy wonk who thinks through the tough issues with his small-government sensibilities, yet he needs to communicate that he understands that policy decisions have human consequences.
Contrary to what some critics say, Dunleavy has a vision; smaller government that is more efficient, less intrusive, and more responsive is certainly a vision. Allowing citizens to vote on taxes and the PFD is a vision. But Dunleavy hasn’t hit his stride in communicating his vision and he has faced a media that has sharpened its knives on every one of his missteps.
Dunleavy recently lost Matt Shuckerow, his press secretary, who left to become campaign manager for Sen. Dan Sullivan. Shuckerow was a capable hand and well-respected by the press corps, so far as their respect for press secretaries go.
Now Dunleavy’s communication director/strategist Mary Ann Pruitt has stepped back from her role running comms on contract with the governor’s office. Must Read Alaska has learned she is renegotiating the contract, as she gears up for what will be a monster year at her thriving company, PS Strategies, which has clients in several states. She never intended to stay past the Dunleavy transition phase, anyway.
Pruitt, through her company, is also likely to have a role in defending the administration against a recall, something that would have to be done outside the governor’s office. The Republican Governors Association is one of her company’s clients and RGA is paying attention. She’ll also be busy with political accounts to battle ballot measures that will come up in 2020.
So Dunleavy is going to need a new communication strategist to fill the void of these two talents. He needs someone who has superpowers to pull the message together and who understands the current media environment, the political environment, and Alaska.
But who? The list of people with that kind of “master communications strategist” talent in the state is short, and most of those people are already busy with other, better paying clients, or they can’t break away from existing projects to help the governor.
Dunleavy needs a person of the caliber of a Michael Dubke, the former communication director for the Trump White House, who also once had a key role in the election of Sen. Dan Sullivan.
Or a Matt Mackowiak, who did communication strategy during a critical juncture in the Parnell Administration.
Or a Mike Pauley, who was one of Dunleavy’s key strategic advisers on during the campaign and who has lived and worked in Alaska for years, (now in Seattle).
Or a Sarah Erkmann-Ward, owner of Blueprint Alaska, a communications firm in Anchorage, who has the respect of the media and the trust of the governor.
All are big-picture strategists, but this would be a more-than-full-time job. The person Dunleavy needs is going to have to stand up a 360-degree communication war room that is dedicated 24/7 during what will be a most-challenging year ahead.
That’s a special person.
Radio personality Dave Stieren, newly hired into the Governor’s Office as a community relations liaison is not that person — he’s not a speech writer, not a press secretary, and not the cordial guy with good bedside manners to manage a team of creative political professionals. He’s more of a street fighter and the governor needs to play to his super powers.
The right person for this role hasn’t materialized overnight, and that keeps the red flag flying, as this governor needs to get his message out more than ever: Dunleavy goes into the next budget cycle facing a $880 million deficit, a recall campaign, and a recalcitrant House and Senate Majority.
There’s more: According to Morning Consult, a polling firm that tracks the popularity of politicians, Dunleavy went from a 29 percent disapproval rating during the first quarter of the year to a 41 percent disapproval rating in the third quarter. He now ranks ninth from the bottom among the 50 governors.
To compare, last year at this time former Gov. Bill Walker had a 54 percent disapproval rating. In January of 2018, 52 percent of Alaskans disapproved of him, so he was a whole lot worse off than Dunleavy.
And in fairness, Dunleavy approval rating has ticked up slightly since the first quarter, and is now at 43 percent. That’s a couple of points advantage for him, and he could build on it if he could get his message out.
Getting that comm. team in place, it seems, would be a priority of the highest order, something he might want to act on sooner, rather later.