Seniority counts

Senate seniority is a prize – a key factor in Alaska’s U.S. Senate race being decided Nov. 2.

Alaska’s senior senator is Lisa Murkowski, an incumbent running for re-election as a write-in candidate after being bounced as the Republican nominee in the primary election by Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller. For eight years, Murkowski has served the state in Washington, D.C.; the past two years butting up against a Democrat-controlled Congress and Democratic president.
Miller has no elected experience, although he’s been active in Republican politics.

Scott McAdams, the Democratic nominee challenging Murkowski and Miller in a three-way race, has served as Sitka’s mayor, giving him limited experience.

Murkowski, the only candidate who has seen the inside of the Senate, stresses seniority in her campaign. It’s a topic that should be addressed.

The critical point is that Alaska might be left with no seniority within its Senate representation after the election. After enjoying Sen. Ted Stevens’ 40 years in the Senate, where he gained enviable and powerful positions as a result of his senority, Alaska could become the state with the least seniority of all. This could last for at least the next decade.

Here’s a little history: Stevens joined the Senate in 1968. By the time, Frank Murkowski joined the Senate in 1980, Stevens already had 12 years in the body and had acquired seniority. Frank Murkowski depended on Stevens to fill the seniority slot while he began to build his own.

When Frank Murkowski left the Senate to become Alaska’s governor, he appointed Lisa Murkowski to fill his vacant position. She, too, depended on Stevens’ seniority while she gained positions in the Senate and built seniority. Stevens mentored Lisa Murkowski, and she quickly rose within the Republican Senate ranks to acquire powerful committee seats. Stevens handled the prestigious Appropriations Committee, and steered Lisa toward the Energy committee – two of the most important committees for a young and growing state with huge energy resources.

Lisa Murkowski now serves on Appropriations, which will be even more significant one day when the Republicans regain control of the Senate. She also has advanced to ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and serves on Health Education Labor and Pensions, as well as Indian Affairs committees.

The Alaska senators work together as a team. When Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, replaced Stevens in 2008, he and Lisa Murkowski became a team in regard to issues affecting Alaska. That gave Alaska a six-year senator and a freshman one; now it’s an eight-year senator and a two-year one.

At this time, if McAdams wins the general election, Begich, with two years senatorial experience would become the senior senator. Alaska would have a two-year senator and a freshman learning his way around the capital halls.

Then in 2014, the Alaska Republicans, who already have an eye on knocking Begich out of the Senate, would stand a fair chance of succeeding in a state that tends to be conservative. Alaska registers significantly more Republicans than Democrats, with the ratio of voters easily two-to-one.

That would leave Alaska with McAdams, a four-year senator, as the senior senator teaming up with a freshman senator.

The same scenario is highly likely when McAdams’ term would come up on the ballot in 2016. Republicans would be eyeing a McAdams’ seat to fill with a candidate of their choosing. Odds would be in their favor.

It could take at least a decade for Alaskans to elect a senator who would be able to last in the Senate and build even a fraction of the seniority Stevens, and even Frank Murkowski, had acquired.

A similar scenario is possible with Miller, although registered a Republican, he might have a better chance than McAdams or Begich of holding onto a Senate seat if he can appeal to voters who declare no allegiance to Democrats or Republicans.

It is helpful to have worked in the Senate to understand this, but it isn’t imperative. In most work places, seniority matters. Senior employees usually receive respect sooner rather than later from those who newly joined the team, simply because of their experience, knowledge and awareness of how an organization operates. New members turn to them. They get the opportunity before newbies to move up in an organization. They also get to choose their offices and parking spaces before newcomers, but that is minor compared to the respect and position they earned through the years. It doesn’t mean they know all the answers. And it doesn’t mean that a new employee doesn’t have something to offer – they wouldn’t be welcomed into the organization if they didn’t – but experience knows what has worked and likely will work again – whether it’s in an organization, the Senate, on the battlefield or in the household. Even mothers and fathers value the experience they gain with their first children to help them with the last.

Experience – plus relationships built over the long haul and tested by time – are valuable as Sen. Ted Stevens would attest to today. (Even Sen. Mark Begich will agree when his term comes up in 2014; seniority is something when you have begun to get it.)

It will take experience in the Senate if Alaska is to continue to grow and develop its natural resources. That, or Alaska will have to be willing to adopt a senator or two from another state who will place Alaska on their priority list right behind the one from which they were elected.

It will work out better for Alaska if it elects its own senators – a senator who doesn’t put self or the nation ahead of Alaska.