Where his heart is

Sean Parnell is law school's first governor

When he was growing up, Sean Parnell and his family shared nightly meals together around the dinner table, where the conversation often centered on topics related to current events, service and faith.

Gov. Sean Parnell and his wife, Sandi, celebrate Alaska Day in Sitka. Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office.

Parnell says his call to run for public office - which led to him being the first graduate of the Seattle University School of Law to govern a state - was born out of the values his parents instilled in him as a child. His father, Pat Parnell, served as an Anchorage Assembly member and the Alaska House of Representatives.

"It's a natural extension," he said. "Service above self was exalted."

Parnell '87, was elected Alaska's lieutenant governor in 2006 and became governor in July after former Gov. Sarah Palin's surprise resignation. The circumstances - and the fascination with Vice Presidential Candidate Palin - cast Parnell into the national spotlight as he took over for the woman who had attracted from around the world. When he was sworn in, reporters from the "Lower 48" as Alaska calls the contiguous United States, swarmed. While he handled it with grace, he's relieved to see the focus where he believes it should be.

"At this point, we' re back to Alaska issues and the Alaska press corps," he said.

His first 100 days in office have been productive and successful, he said, as he works on his priorities of strengthening the Alaska economy and families, including looking at expanded oil exploration and initiatives to eradicate domestic violence and provide college scholarships for talented students. Alaska's economy has not suffered as much as other states, but it is still a challenge.

Among his priorities, he proposed a sweeping new scholarship program for Alaska students to better prepare them for college, encourage them to stay in Alaska for college and careers, and help pay for tuition based on academic achievement. The Governor's Performance Scholarship would be available for study at accredited Alaska colleges and universities. The program awaits legislative approval.

Education was key to Parnell's success, especially his law school education. Preparing to graduate from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Parnell began to consider law school. But he wasn't sure he wanted a career devoted to practicing law. Deciding to enroll, with the encouragement of his father, was fortuitious.

He did in fact practice law in Anchorage for several years, and the skills he learned have benefited him in office. He was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 1992 at the age of 29. He was re-elected in 1994 and served one term in the Alaska State Senate from 1996 to 2000.

"The lessons I’ve learned in law school have been invaluable, and the way of thinking and analyzing they teach are very helpful. The governor doesn’t have to know everything and can’t, but a governor has to know what questions to ask. The law school education I received was very practical and useful to me."
Sean Parnell '87

While many of the federal representatives are lawyers, that's not the case in Alaska, where representatives from all parts of the state bring a variety of experience and backgrounds. While he was in the legislature, only five of the 60 legislators had law degrees, he said.

He fondly remembers Professor Emeritus Tom Holdych, who had high expectations of his students. When called on, Parnell said he or a classmate might stall for a little time saying, "That's a good question..."

"How about a good answer?" was Holdych's retort.

After graduation, Parnell returned to his home state. Many others leave for college and don't come back, and he hopes the Governor's Performance Scholarship can change that. The merit-based scholarships would be given to students who meet GPA requirements and pass a rigorous curriculum. It would cover a portion of tuition based on performance at Alaska universities.

"Alaska employers are crying out for highly qualified and better educated workers. We are losing many of our young people to opportunities in the Lower 48 and abroad; and Alaskans need jobs," he said. "That can change the dynamic of our school system and certainly our economy 50 to 100 years in the future," he said.

Parnell says he's proud to serve the state that he says is full of wonder and promise.

"I love Alaska's people, and I love the land. It's about as simple as that," he said. "You can come here and set a course for yourself. Alaska is so young and rich with opportunity, and there aren't set social structures. Anyone can make it here."

Parnell is philosophical about his role and said he works to keep it all in perspective.

"It's important to understand that each of us is here for a reason, and it's bigger than ourselves," he said. "You can find that reason whether you're a governor or working in the trenches. It's about the heart, it's not about what we do."

By Katherine Hedland Hansen

Winter 2009-10