Alaska politics used to be fun. Lively, funny people practiced the art. But the 49th State is no longer moated, no longer that “foreign country significantly populated with Americans” that John McPhee wrote about. It has lost some of its recklessness and lawlessness. Now, nearly 61 years since statehood was granted, it has matured.
Back in the 1980s, Alaskans used to love the expression, “We don’t give a damn how they do it Outside.” One rarely hears that now.
Its Libertarian streak remains intact, and its presidential election voters haven’t turned blue since LBJ’s 1964 landslide, the state’s antipathy toward the federal government, once hugely pronounced, is more nuanced. At long last, it realizes how dependent it is on the feds.
Nearly two-thirds of its land mass is federally-owned. No state in the union is more reliant on federal stimulus dollars. It has long been fashionable in the Last Frontier to demand smaller government, but even the most rugged of Alaska’s rugged individualists are not terribly enthusiastic about giving up their own federal goodies.
I’m guessing that nowhere in the country are residents more spooked about climate change than in Alaska. There was early July day last year when the temperatures hit 90 degrees in Anchorage, the hottest day ever recorded there. Polar bears are drowning or starving in the Bering Sea, as icebergs disappear. A lack of snowfall has in recent years prompted organizers of the Iditarod dog-mushing marathon to import snow from Fairbanks to be ladled onto Anchorage’s Fourth Avenue, where the annual race begins.
Still, state politics in the land that brought you Sarah Palin populism are as jumbled and fraught as ever as current governor Mike Dunleavy faces a recall vote for budget cuts so draconian that even the populists are yelping. But then, politics has always been colorful sport in the 49th.
Years ago, back when I was young and reckless, I boarded a Piper Cub in Anchorage, bound for Homer on a campaign trip that would take me and the Republican candidate for governor to several small towns along the Kenai Peninsula.
Before leaving the newsroom for my flight to Homer, my editor at The
Anchorage Times, Mike Todd, told me, “Ellis, look, if the bush pilot offers you
a swig of whiskey, make sure you drink it. It’ll be less for him.”
With me on that tiny puddle jumper was Tom Fink, a small, sprightly insurance man from Anchorage. Dapper as always, he wore his customary bow tie. I recall it was usually green. Fink, you see, was an Irishman who appreciated a generous pour of Hennessey at the end of the long day on the campaign trail.
It was early October of 1982 and the Chugach Mountains smiled bright with a thin layer of snow, or what Alaskans call termination dust, as in the end, or termination, of summer. Fink was facing an uphill general election fight against a rich hotelier named Bill Sheffield, a compact, gravid man with a lifelong stutter, who came to the Great Land several decades before, beginning his rise to power – as so many Alaskan politicians have, before and after – in the most meager of ways.
In Sheffield’s case, it was as a TV repairman for Sears & Roebuck. Funny, but it was he, and not the unfortunately named Fink, who had the (ruinous) luck of the Irish. The very day after opening a new Anchorage hotel, the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 shook it to the ground.
In July 1985, three years into his first and only term, the Republican-controlled state senate tried to impeach poor Bill for, get this, steering a $9.1 million lease for state offices to a Fairbanks building in which one of Sheffield’s supporters and fund-raisers held an interest. Talk about routine political patronage. Yes, only in Alaska. The senate, in fact, went so far as to hire Sam Dash, chief counsel to the U.S. Senate’s Watergate Select Committee to prosecute their case.
Last week, I reached Sheffield at his Anchorage home. He’s 92 now, and he barely remembered my name. I asked him what he thought about the escalating list of people signing petitions to remove the current Gov. Mike Dunleavy from office. His voice weak from age, Sheffield told me, “I don’t know about all that. Don’t want to get into it. But, you know, they did try to get me too.”
Those were the days, my friends, as the song goes. We never though they’d never end. But they haven’t, not, at least, when it comes to the messy, intoxicating, and intriguingly weird and wacky world of Alaska politics.
Keep in mind the first governor of Alaska, Bill Egan, drove dump trucks. Later, it was Wally Hickel at the helm, who’d later get fired by Richard Nixon, in November 1970, after Tricky Dick got wind of a Hickel-written letter to the press that chided the president for not listening to America’s young people on the Vietnam War.
If Hollywood was looking for an actor to pose as a man in charge of the nation’s biggest state, surely it would have chosen Jay Hammond. Alaska’s fourth governor was a bush pilot, a ruggedly handsome man who oversaw the creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly check given to each Alaskan (even newborns qualify) whose amount is based on returns from the state’s sovereign-wealth fund. We’re talking oil money.
In 1980, I covered the U.S. Senate Democratic primary. Clark Gruening, the grandson of Ernest Gruening, one of only two senators to vote against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave LBJ license to light the Vietnam War fuse, defeated incumbent Sen. Mike Gravel, the man who in 1971 smuggled the Pentagon Papers into two large suitcases and tried to read them into the Congressional Record.
One evening amidst that Senate primary, a third candidate, a wood carver named Michael Beasely danced around a campfire in Seward, his ill-fitting rug nearly sliding off his head, singing to a handful of intoxicated supporters, “Ba ba ba, ba- Beasel …, ba, ba, ba-Beasley…”
Which brings us to the haplessly over-promising current governor Mike Dunleavy, currently facing a recall campaign for gutting the state budget in a desperate attempt to shore up that most sacred of Alaskan institutions – the annual oil wealth dividend. In 2018, Dunleavy campaigned on raising the state’s dividend — $1,606 in 2019 – to around $3,000. But, in order to accomplish that, he caused a complete uproar when he vetoed 182 line-items from the state budget, totaling more than $440 million. Much of that money would be spent to fund the dividend.
Dunleavy’s cuts hacked $130 million, or 41 percent of state funding, to the University of Alaska system and siphoned tens of millions from Medicaid. It dramatically reduced senior services and public education funding. Cash assistance to the elderly poor was gutted, along with money for the Alaska Maritime Highway System, a network of ferries that gives a transportation lifeline to dozens of coastal communities unconnected to the state’s road system. It also left Alaska as the only state without an arts agency.
“I don’t want to say it’s a political death sentence,” Larry Persily a former deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue told the New Yorker. “But you could have taken their firstborn and had more of a chance of reelection.”
After the cuts were announced, even members of Dunleavy’s own Republican Party were aghast.
Tom Anderson, a GOP political consultant, whose public affairs agency in Anchorage helped get Dunleavy elected, told me, “A unique dimension to the Dunleavy recall has been that prominent Republicans have surfaced to publicly endorse his removal…It’s probably not a comfortable place to be for the governor.”
As Arthur Keyes, the former director of Agriculture, said to me last week, “Obviously, we are in a situation where cuts need to happen, (Alaska faces a $1.5 billion deficit.) but using a sledge hammer to do it is not the answer.”
Like many Alaskans, Claire Pywell came to the Great Land as a 22-year-old, a New Englander with a passion for advocacy. She fell in love with the state, as young people often do. Now, seven years later, she is the Recall Dunleavy campaign manager.
Her group must collect the signatures of at least 71,252 registered Alaska voters to force a recall vote. Pywell told me they are bearing down on 50,000 signees and are confident that Dunleavy’s recall election could take place August 18, when Alaska holds it primary election.
“Tons of people were outraged,” Pywell told me. “No one could believe what he did. He took a wrecking ball to the institutional and structural ways of life here.” Or, as Recall Dunleavy chairwoman Meda DeWitt told Alaska Public Media, “I think people see the budget that he put out right now as like a two-year-old frost-bit salmon.”
You gotta love Alaska.