JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy was sworn into office Monday, taking his oath in a school gym in the western Alaska city of Kotzebue after poor weather forced a change in plans the morning of the ceremony.
Dunleavy, a former teacher and school administrator who lived for years in Kotzebue, praised those who pulled together the “fantastic” ceremony on short notice. In rural Alaska, he said, “you make things work.”
Dunleavy had planned to be sworn in in the tiny Inupiat Eskimo community of Noorvik, which he said was chosen because it’s his wife Rose’s hometown and the two have fond memories of the years they spent living in rural Alaska.
He even initially planned to fly into Kotzebue and make a 65-mile (105-kilometer) trek by snowmobile to Noorvik.
But plans began to fall apart after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Anchorage on Friday, causing widespread damage to roadways in Alaska’s largest city and surrounding areas.
Dunleavy canceled the snowmobile trip and abbreviated his travel plans so he could focus on earthquake relief efforts, said Sarah Erkmann Ward, a spokeswoman for the transition team. He instead intended to fly straight to Noorvik on Monday from Anchorage on a chartered flight.
Plans changed again when poor visibility at the small airport in Noorvik prompted Dunleavy’s plane to be diverted to Kotzebue, where supporters, unable to fly into Noorvik, were gathered, Ward said.
The judge who swore Dunleavy in was on the plane with him, and Kevin Meyer, who was sworn in as lieutenant governor, was already in Kotzebue.
Visibility began to improve late Monday morning amid lingering snow, meteorologist Jim Brader said. Dunleavy arrived in Noorvik later in the day for a community celebration.
It is unusual, but not unprecedented, for an Alaska governor to be sworn in outside the capital city of Juneau, though Dunleavy’s ceremony was the first to take place above the Arctic Circle.
In 2015, then-President Barack Obama visited Kotzebue to highlight climate change.
Dunleavy said the ceremony could have taken place anywhere, and he knew weather this time of year could pose a risk in traveling.
But he said he wanted to come. Rural Alaska “has a special place in our heart,” he said.
Under the state constitution, a governor’s term begins at noon on the first Monday in December. Dunleavy was sworn in around 11:40 a.m.
Mark Jenkins, principal of Kotzebue Middle High School, the grade 6-12 school where the event was held, said it was a true team effort, with district staff and students among those who chipped in.
As word of the event spread, people started coming to the school and officials weren’t sure how much space would be needed so they limited the students who could come to the roughly 175 in the high school.
In the end, there was enough room, he said.
He said the school is used to hosting events and joked about how things came together. “Hey, we had 90 minutes. Come on. We could have done it in 60,” he said.
Dunleavy, a Republican former state senator, won office by defeating Democratic former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich in November.
The incumbent, Gov. Bill Walker dropped his re-election bid in October, days after then-Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott resigned over what Walker described as an inappropriate overture to a woman. Walker, an independent, said he could not win a three-way race and offered qualified support for Begich.
Dunleavy has said that he was in close contact with Walker about the response to the earthquake. Walker has said he did not expect the recovery to be affected by the transition in administrations.
Walker and Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson declined to attend the swearing in, to focus instead on helping reopen state facilities after the quake. Walker said he wished Dunleavy well.