Alaska editorial: Jay Hammond helped shape modern Alaska

Posted: Friday, August 05, 2005

The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

Jay Hammond wore well after leaving office. Survey after survey in recent years ranked him at the top, along with U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, among Alaska leaders. After leaving office 23 years ago, he enjoyed both credibility and public esteem - still one of the canniest politicians, as he might say, to come down the pike. That makes it easy to forget how controversial a governor he was from 1974 through 1982.

Hammond lived a storied Alaska life: trapper, hunter, guide, fisherman, wildlife biologist, bush pilot, mayor, legislator, governor, columnist and elder statesman. Founder and protector of the Alaska Permanent Fund and, separately, the permanent fund dividend. Environmentalist who presided over unprecedented growth. Republican Party stalwart who worked closely with the ruling - at the time - legislative Democrats. Bush advocate who appealed to voters in newly sprawling urban areas. Grizzled, beret-wearing raconteur who raised political doggerel to Alaskanized art form. Representative, most of all, of an era in Alaska public life when the hope of seizing control of our own future seemed most potent.

Jay Hammond, a little-known state senator from Naknek, was elected governor in 1974 because Alaskans saw a pipeline boom coming and it made them nervous. He spoke for many who wanted to preserve the frontier beauty and pioneering virtues of the old Alaska, even though everyone knew there were great riches and great changes ahead. He also cautioned - again and again, throughout his career - that Alaskans had the obligation to be sure a share of wealth from Alaska's great resource production stayed home. But in those views he also attracted the fears and intense opposition of those who felt his go-slow caution would cost Alaska the best opportunities it had ever seen.

Hammond prevailed. By tiny margins, he defeated a pair of old-style "boomers" in 1974 to win the Governor's Mansion - former governor and former Interior Secretary Wally Hickel in the Republican primary, then three-time former governor and Constitutional Convention chief Bill Egan in the general election. He did it again in 1978 by stopping Mr. Hickel in an intensely contested GOP primary and then a Hickel write-in campaign in the general. The 1974 and 1978 elections established the boomer-vs.-greenie trope - and generations of division - that continue to this day.

Neither Hammond nor Hickel was the caricatured villain of their adversaries' fears. Hammond presided over the pipeline boom and the surge in state spending that followed. He was one of the key founders of the Alaska Permanent Fund, though he always pointed out there were others, and he subsequently became its staunchest defender. He railed against government spending and the breakdown of the normal spending constraints in American democratic practice, but under his administration government - like all of Alaska - grew faster than at any time before or since.

To the end of his days, in speeches, columns and behind-the-scenes discussions, he schemed to protect the dividend and decelerate the growth of government. He prevailed there too and he drove some who disagreed with his nostrums to ever-rising frustration. It will be interesting to watch, in the years ahead, the evolution of the permanent fund without the influence of its iconic chief defender.

With the exception of Ted Stevens, nobody shaped modern Alaska more than Jay Hammond. Nobody better personified the opportunities and struggles of the Last Frontier. Nobody worked more tirelessly to protect a place and a people he loved - who long returned the feeling, surely more than he knew.

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