Mead Treadwell, ‘big-picture guy,’ runs for U.S. Senate

This is the first in a series about the three Republicans vying for the chance to challenge Sen. Mark Begich in November.

Mead Treadwell.
Mead Treadwell.

Some people go into politics for prestige, some for power. Talk to Mead Treadwell for a while and it’s clear, he just loves policy – Ocean policy, Arctic policy, global issues. You can hear it when he tells of how he first came to Alaska, on vacation with his grandmother and brother. He says he read Wally Hickel’s book on the ferry going north.

“For me the book was incredibly relevant about the giant issues of the day,” he says.

He was impressed with its discussion of energy security and environment, and with Hickel, who as Interior Secretary stood up to Nixon.  Treadwell knocked on Hickel’s door and wound up working on his campaign for governor.

“I ended up doing a lot of writing for him, and the very first assignment they gave me was, we (were) in a fight for the 200-mile limit now,” he says.

The outer continental shelf. International policy. A treaty called Law of the Sea – Treadwell was in heaven. But there was still a summer vacation to complete. He and his brother went hiking near Kantishna.

“And I’m sitting there on a mountain top watching Denali do her tease — now you can see the mountain, now you can’t see the mountain,” he says, recounting a story he tells often. Sitting there, with a marmot going through his backpack, he realized that as far out there as they were, they were smack dab in the center of the world.

And I said to my brother, ‘I don’t need to live anywhere else. This is kind of the best of all worlds. It has the policy challenges, the business challenges; it’s incredibly relevant to the world,’ ” he recalls. ”So I decided then and there: I was going to be an Alaskan.”

It was 1974 and he was 18-years-old. Treadwell did become Alaskan, after Yale, where he wrote a senior thesis on Law of the Sea. He’s had a varied career: Anchorage Times reporter; Deputy DEC commissioner under Hickel; co-founder, with Hickel of Yukon Pacific Corporation; chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. Entrepreneur.

Anchorage writer and talk-show host Michael Carey says, as a candidate, Treadwell struggles to sound like a regular Alaskan. All three Republicans in the race went to elite universities, but Carey says on Treadwell it shows.

“He’s a big-picture guy who talks about the Arctic and some of the Hickel themes. I wonder if that really is appealing to the Republican base,” Carey says.

Former Anchorage District Attorney Ed McNally has been his friend since Treadwell’s freshman year at Yale, when they both participated in crew.  McNally says it’s easy to see why Louis Mead Treadwell the second strikes some as a privileged preppy.

“East Coast, Ivy league, even the name, right? It has that ring to it, and I probably thought that,’” says McNally, now a lawyer in New York City. “And he had a very humble childhood.

Of course, adversity is relative. Treadwell grew up in Newtown, Connecticut. His father, a businessman, served as First Selectman, akin to mayor. When Treadwell was 15, his dad was killed in a house fire. But Treadwell did, in fact, go to a prep school: Hotchkiss, then Yale, and eventually Harvard, for an MBA.

Maybe it’s his fondness for policy and or just his manner, but even supporters acknowledge Treadwell doesn’t always light up a room.  McNally, though, says these days Treadwell is far more passionate.

“Whatever was once the stereotype of reserved Connecticut, maybe even East Coast or WASP, is long gone, and I think Carol probably brought some of that to him,” McNally says. “Carol was unabashedly, exuberantly out there.”

Carol Walsh Treadwell was Mead’s wife, who died 12 years ago of brain cancer. They had four children, one of whom died in infancy. McNally says the couple were yin and yang, her ebullience against his reserve. McNally thinks Treadwell became more like Carol for his kids. Or, he says, maybe their Carol DNA emerged and rubbed off on him. Treadwell likes to say his children raised him well.

“At the time (Carol) died, Natalie was in kindergarten, Will was in first grade, Tim was in 4th grade, and I had three kids and a minivan,” Treadwell says.

He mentions that minivan a lot during campaign appearances. It’s very “regular guy.” Though Treadwell is an incumbent in statewide office, he’s had trouble raising funds. Treadwell let two of his campaign professionals go this spring and is the only candidate to have put in a significant amount of his own cash – more than $200,000 as of April. He says former DNR commissioner Dan Sullivan seems to have a lock on most of the Outside donors. Still, a recent poll showed him neck and neck with Sullivan. Treadwell says it’s not all about money.

“I think I can win because I’ve got 40 years of working on these issues in Alaska, of helping Alaskans across the board solve our problems,” he says.

His campaign theme is “bringing decision making home.” He’s not just talking about curbing the power of federal land managers.

I’ll say this in front of the Alaska Native community, as I did last week, We have challenges,  and many times we’ll run off to Washington and get Washington to solve our problems where we could do a much better job sitting down and talking with each other at home.

That may not go over well with Alaska tribal authorities, who feel only the federal government is willing to protect their rights and support self-governance.

With rival Joe Miller staking out the far right of the spectrum, Treadwell strives to show he’s as pro-life and against gay marriage as anybody. He can’t though, match Tea Party dogma denying climate change. As head of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, Treadwell wrote that emissions from burning fossil fuels were speeding climate change. Now, as he has for years, he says petroleum use is just one factor, along with natural causes.

I also believe, well if you turn around and take humans out of the picture, would you stop it? The answer is no,” he says.

A review of his old speeches shows his beliefs about human causes of climate change have long occupied this grey area.

“I don’t think it should hurt me (in the Republican primary). But I will tell you I’m a denier of the concept that raising your taxes or putting any sort of rationing on your energy use is an appropriate role of government,” he says. “I believe government’s role at this point should be to move technology along to make energy cleaner.”

His views have made a U-turn on the very first Alaska policy he ever worked on, the Law of the Sea treaty. Tea Party conservatives despise Law of the Sea. Joe Miller calls it a power-grab by the United Nations. Treadwell, after advocating for ratification for decades, now says he is troubled it would require the U.S. to pay a tax to the U.N. He says his views changed around the time of his 2010 campaign.

“I had looked at it purely from the Alaska focus before,” he says.

He says there may be other routes for the state to gain the benefits of the treaty without paying into a global tax regime.

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