Political frustration prompted veteran to join statehood fight

Posted: Monday, May 05, 2008

Editor's note: This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood to be celebrated on Jan. 3 2009. If you know of anyone with a statehood story to tell please contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Victor Fischer recalls being politically frustrated when he moved to Alaska in 1950 after serving in the U.S. Army in both the European and Pacific theaters during World War II.

"When I came to Alaska I just didn't quite realize the extent which Alaska was a colony of the United States," he said. "I had by then voted for president and U.S. Senate in Wisconsin and I was appalled that as a veteran who had been in the Army to war to protect democracy, here I am in Alaska and all of a sudden I've lost my full citizenship rights and I couldn't vote anymore."

Fischer, along with other veterans in the territory, formed a group called Operation Statehood to help forge the fight for Alaska's entrance to the union. Many people were frustrated by decades of political maneuvering taking place in the nation's capital that had kept Alaska from becoming a state, he said.

"Alaska was destined to be a state and it was just sort of politics and federal bureaucratic control that prevented moving ahead," Fischer said.

Multiple bills were held up in Congress over the years and people in Alaska grew increasingly frustrated by the process, he said.

"It was horrendously frustrating and people were incensed," Fischer said. "By the mid '50s it was time for the Constitutional Convention, Congress wasn't acting, so sort of anyone who was politically involved and the citizens movement felt we had to do something more."

Fischer decided to resign his position as the Anchorage planning director and filed to run for one of the 55 delegate positions of the Alaska Constitutional Convention in 1955.

"I was one of 12 elected from South Central district and there were about 50 some candidates and it was kind of edifying to win the election and from then on it was just hard work, preparing, studying to come to Fairbanks for the convention and slogging along," he said.

Fischer provided his expertise as a city planner to the local government committee at the convention. He also spent many hours poring over the evolving document as a member of the style and drafting committee.

"Substantively I worked on local government," Fischer said. "In terms of the whole constitution, it was fabulous working on style and drafting."

Fischer recalls the style and drafting of the constitution as a painstaking and detailed process that had three subcommittees working to ensure the document was stylistically, grammatically and substantively sound.

"It's all designed to last for decades, for centuries if need be, more or less like the U.S. Constitution has lasted through the ages," he said. "Part of it is that you think about how you're crafting it, and secondly that you don't make it a document that is just for the particular time, that can be amended too easily to reflect which ways the winds are blowing during any particular year, during any particular legislature."

Fischer said he also participated in many debates on the floor of the convention and attended other committee meetings to stay informed and engaged in the process. The delegates, both individually and collectively, were very conscious of the responsibility that had been placed on them to create a model constitution, he said.

"I would say that most of us really considered that we were engaged in a very, very important undertaking," Fischer said. "And the initial approach was this is to get statehood. But once the delegates got seriously into the constitution, it was the best possible constitution for the future state of Alaska."

Fischer said he has many fond memories from the convention, particularly when the delegates adopted the finished document.

"When the motion was made to approve the constitution, sort of the final role call, that was a realization, 'my god, we've done it. We've done it and we did a good job, or as good a job as this group or any group could have done,'" he said. "It was not a feeling of satisfaction in terms of how we pulled one over on anybody, it was just we did the job we were elected to do."

Fischer recalls mainly a feeling exhaustion after the 75-day convention came to a close. The delegates still had to work to get the constitution ratified by the citizens of Alaska and explain what had taken place over the winter in Fairbanks.

"I don't think there was a feeling of this is the end and let's celebrate, or anything like that," he said.

Fischer was subsequently elected to the territorial House of Representatives and continued to advocate for Alaska statehood prior to its admittance to the union on Jan. 3, 1959. He would later serve for six years as a senator in the Alaska State Legislature beginning in 1980.

As Alaska nears the 50th anniversary of statehood, Fischer said the constitution has proved to be an effective document that is clear and concise.

"There has been some amendments over the past 50 years that have undermined sort of the basic principles of writing the constitution, but all in all the constitution has stood up extremely well," he said.

The document has served Alaskans and has also served as a model constitution, Fischer said.

"It's been praised and still is being praised nationally as the best state constitution," he said. "I think it is that because we wrote it as the last state constitution written in the United States from scratch. We had the benefit of learning from every other constitution, learning from the federal constitution and learning what should be done and what shouldn't be done."

Looking back more than 50 years later, Fischer recalls his time as a delegate to the constitutional convention as one of the best times of his life.

"Alaska has been my life," he said. "Statehood and participating in the drafting of the constitution were the highlight of my active participation in behalf of the Alaska I love."

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