Washington -- Pac/West Communications, an Oregon firm the Alaska Legislature is about to hire to promote oil drilling in the Arctic, has run political campaigns for hunting and resource development that have been marked by two qualities: aggressiveness and success.
Pac/West's president, Paul Phillips, served in the Oregon House and Senate, where he had a reputation as a shrewd tactician, a man who knew the rules, pushed their limits, and sometimes crossed them.
His Alaska supporters are hoping his smarts and his demonstrated ability to shape voter opinion will be the key that finally opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. A $3 million appropriation to Pac/West for an ANWR campaign is in a bill pending before the Alaska Legislature.
Phillips says it's time for Alaska to apply "social marketing" to the state's long effort to convince Congress to open the refuge to drilling. He wants to target particular areas of the country and tell people there why it's in their interest to open ANWR. The campaign would be directed at voters, and at their representatives in Congress, he said.
"It really is building awareness of the issue, educating people as to the 'why does this matter to me,' " he said.
His firm beat an anti-trapping initiative in Oregon in 2000 and defeated an Alaska initiative to ban bear baiting in 2004. Pac/West also ran an edgy $4 million anti-smoking campaign in Oregon in the 1990s.
As a state senator, Phillips became known for springing legislative maneuvers on Friday afternoons, when his colleagues were focused on the weekend, according to an Oregonian article from 1995, his last year in office. His legislative career was clouded by accusations that he used his position as a lawmaker to further his simultaneous work as a political consultant, charges Oregon's ethics commission sustained in 1990 with a record $17,000 fine. A hearing officer concluded that, among other things, Phillips wrote a letter to shoe company Nike on his state House letterhead saying that if Nike extended his consulting contract, or gave him a full-time job, "he would use his efforts as a Representative during the next session of the legislature" to defeat tax bills Nike didn't like.
Phillips notes that the fine didn't affect his re-election and he considers the matter more of a blip.
AGGRESSIVE ON BEAR BAITING
Paul Joslin, a wildlife biologist from Anchorage, got to know the firm when it came north to fight an initiative he championed that would have banned bear-baiting in Alaska. He said what Pac/West did in that campaign went beyond aggressive.
"It's crooked. It's dishonest," said Joslin, who remains outraged almost two years later.
Phillips said he wasn't familiar with the specifics of Joslin's complaints.
"I know he's unhappy with the outcome of the election, and I'll just leave it at that," he said.
The Alaska Legislature's $3 million ANWR appropriation grew out of Sen. Ted Stevens' call last month to boost state spending on ANWR advocacy.
Some state Democrats say they don't like the idea of a no-bid contract going to an out-of-state firm. They also say they're wary of Phillips' strategy.
"I think it's very dangerous to spend public money in other people's districts around the country," said Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage. "There's a feeling that it may not be just telling the ANWR story, that it's about trying to affect the outcome of elections."
Phillips said he would "absolutely not" use the $3 million to interfere in any campaigns, and no one in Alaska has asked him to.
But a pro-ANWR campaign aimed at voters in particular districts might look like an effort to unseat an anti-drilling incumbent. The messages may converge.
Take Sen. Ted Stevens' efforts to get Maria Cantwell out of the U.S. Senate. Sen. Cantwell, D-Washington, was the Democrats' point person on the ANWR fight last year and clearly got under Stevens' skin. When his ANWR move failed in December, he angrily pledged that he'd go to Cantwell's state and tell her constituents what she'd done. Now he's raising money for Mike McGavick, her Republican challenger. Last week, in Seattle, Stevens warned Cantwell's constituents that gas prices are climbing, which he cited as a reason to open ANWR.
"One has to wonder whether these millions are part of Ted Stevens' personal crusade against Maria Cantwell -- funded by Alaska taxpayers," said Christy Setzer, spokeswoman for a group called Senate Majority Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group working to get more Democrats elected to the U.S. Senate. Stevens "has gone to great lengths this week alone to make good on this revenge promise against her," she added.
Stevens, though, told reporters last week that he isn't campaigning against anyone, just helping McGavick.
Phillips called the notion that this is about Cantwell absurd.
"Maria Cantwell? She's a senator from Washington state, right?" he said.
Phillips said he assumes his ANWR effort will focus on U.S. House districts, and not necessarily in the Northwest, but he said he won't put his strategic plan together until he knows for sure that he has the contract.
Legislative negotiators have already approved the $3 million for Pac/West, so its passage is likely. The bill, though, must still pass a House-Senate committee and then clear both houses, which could happen this week.
EDUCATION, NOT POLITICS
The campaign, he said, will be about education, not electoral politics.
"What we really need to do is look at the districts around the country and make a determination, based on the input we have, as to what information would be valuable to those members and their constituencies to get engaged in this debate," Phillips said.
State House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said he likes Phillips' approach. "I've said all along ... that we've got to get a grass-roots effort in the home states of these folks and educate the people there so they understand the issue," Harris said. "The congressmen understand it. The problem is their constituents don't."
Harris said he was impressed with Pac/West's work against the bear-baiting initiative. Going into the election, polling showed a strong majority of Alaskans were opposed to bear-baiting, suggesting the ban might pass. Once Pac/West weighed in, portraying the initiative as Outside meddling and anti-Alaskan, support declined. The initiative failed by a substantial margin.
"They're a good outfit," Harris said. He tried to convince his colleagues to hire the company for an ANWR campaign last year, but he didn't get the support he needed until Stevens spoke to the Legislature last month, he said.
Joslin, who championed the bait ban, said he resented his campaign being portrayed as controlled by Outsiders, although he did accept $25,000 from the Humane Society a few days before the election. In that campaign, each side accused the other of running on out-of-state money and doing the bidding of national interest groups.
What really got Joslin mad, though, was a plot to steal his group's name. He said Jerod Broadfoot, who was working for Pac/West to defeat the initiative, tried to take the name Joslin's group was using in its petition drive, Citizens United against Bear Baiting, and register it himself.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission rejected Broadfoot's registration for that and some nine other pro-bear names.
"The whole purpose of that was to tie up those names so others couldn't use them," said Chris Ellingson, assistant director of APOC.
Asked about the attempted name swipe last week, Phillips said he would look into it.
"I think if we would have done that I would remember it," he said.
Two days later, after Ellingson confirmed to the Daily News that Joslin's account was correct, Phillips said he didn't see anything underhanded about it.
CHANCE OF BACKFIRE
"Is it a problem to try to get as many names locked up as you can?" he asked.
Ellingson says yes. Alaska law doesn't allow it, and her research showed it's not allowed in Oregon either, she said.
Sen. Ellis, the Anchorage Democrat, called Pac/West's work on the bear campaign "artful and misleading" and he said he hoped the firm won't be as "convoluted" when it represents Alaska in other states.
"If they do those things and get caught at it, it could boomerang on us," Ellis said. "They need to be very careful because they have Alaska's reputation in their hands."