Country Joe and the minimum wage blues

Captiol Notebook

Posted: Sunday, February 04, 2001

At the Bill Egan Forum at the Baranof this week, the luncheon special might as well have been an elephant with an apple in its mouth.

Guest speaker Jim Ayers, chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, roasted Republican legislators in absentia, using his special sarcasm sauce, passion and humor seasoning, with indignation on the side. The result was a rhetorical banquet for assembled Democratic legislators, staffers and party activists.

Ayers' theme was "1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?" - the famous Woodstock-era refrain from the Country Joe and the Fish anti-war standard.

But in contrast to the governor's often muted approach, Ayers let loose with partisan fervor, trying to reinvigorate Democrats who experience ongoing frustration in the legislative minority.

"You have to get up every morning, know you're in a battle, be your own hero, go save your friends, and then you have to save the poor, save the children, and save the environment," he said. "That's what we're here for."

Ayers seized upon the reaction by some Republicans to a bill to raise the minimum wage. Playing both parts, he interpreted exchanges between an unnamed Republican committee member and a local waitress who came to testify in favor of a higher minimum wage:

Legislator: "Don't you get your tips?"

Waitress: "Yeah."

Legislator: "How much did you make last year?"

Waitress: "Um, $11,000, sir."

Legislator: "Eleven thousand - uh-huh, but you weren't working full-time, were you?"

Waitress: "I couldn't work full-time, because I was trying to go to sch-"

Legislator: "Well, how much do you work?"

Waitress: "About 25 hours a week, sir."

Legislator: "You could have made 20 or 25 thousand dollars, couldn't you?"

Waitress: "Yes, sir, but I've got this kid-"

Legislator: "Ah ha! Next." (pause) "There that woman went, trying to sneak away with 20 grand a year. We got her. ... What if that person's working and getting their tips and $6.40 an hour? Huh? Cuttin'a fat hog there!"

Told later about Ayers' stand-up routine, Republican Rep. Norm Rokeberg of Anchorage, one of the committee members who questioned the waitress, was taken aback.

"I think that's a very mean-spirited and unfortunate interpretation of my comments being made," he said.

Rokeberg said he's inclined to vote for an increase in the minimum wage if it can be partially offset in the hospitality industry through a tip credit. That way, wait staff would see a smaller increase in their minimum wage, which might keep restaurant owners from cutting payroll for dishwashers and other untipped employees, he said.

But Ayers, painting in black and white, embraced his Democratic identity. "I could go make an appointment this afternoon and remind myself why I'm not something else. And that happens."

Ayers also offered answers that various public officials might give to the question, "Why did the chicken cross the road?"

A sampler:

Republican Rep. Scott Ogan of Palmer: "Clearly the chicken was tricked by the government."

Republican House Speaker Brian Porter of Anchorage: "Well, that's a real good question, and we're going to caucus around 4, and I'm going to get back to you, but we'll probably do a joint caucus before I can really give you an answer."

Republican Sen. Pete Kelly of Fairbanks: "It crossed the road, obviously, because the wolf pack was slaughtering these poor chickens."

Knowles: "Obviously, the chicken crossed the road to get a better job, quality schools, safe, healthy chicks, a better coop and some permanent feed."

Quote marks:

"Our shorthand for it is the Alcan of worms." - Yukon Pacific Corp. President Jeff Lowenfels, on problems he sees with the proposed Alaska Highway natural gas pipeline route

"Are there any other unnecessary committee announcements?" - Porter, during a House floor session, after Rep. Lisa Murkowski noted that lawmakers had a printed schedule of committee meetings on their desks

"If open ballots are outlawed, will only outlaws openly vote?" - Sen. Kim Elton's newsletter, regarding a court ruling affecting primary elections in Alaska

Bill McAllister can be reached at

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