Juneau Color

Piloting, permanent fund and paragliders

Posted: Friday, September 08, 2000

Nobody tells Clark Gruening to take a flying leap.

Sometimes he does anyway.

Weather and a $28 billion investment portfolio permitting, Gruening inflates his paraglider on the top of Mount Roberts and then goes airborne above Gastineau Channel.

A smooth landing near the rock dump is assured, unless it's too windy, he said. In that case, "You shouldn't be flying. ... If you've got a head wind that's faster than your forward speed, then you're going backwards."

Gruening, 57, chairman of the Alaska Permanent Fund Board and chief legislative lobbyist for the city of Juneau, also has been buffeted in the halls of

government. There, too, he knows which way the wind is blowing and keeps a steady course, say local officials.

"Even though he's an attorney, he's got common sense," said Mayor Dennis Egan, who counts on Gruening, a former Democratic legislator, to resist efforts to move the capital. "When we deal with legislators, he has respect on both sides of the aisle."

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat and former journalist, wrote about Gruening's stint in elective office and later was an assembly member when Gruening became lobbyist for the city. He calls Gruening "one of my favorite people ... the kind of person you sit down with and want to invite to dinner."

Gruening's family has been closely associated with public service in Alaska.

His grandfather, Ernest Gruening, was one of the first two U.S. senators following statehood, and his father, Hunt, was a member of the Juneau Assembly and the state Board of Education. Now his brother, Win, chairs the Alaska Committee, the group that works to keep the capital in Juneau.

Clark Gruening said he didn't map out his public career in advance.

"I had no definite plans to run for office, but I definitely wanted to live in Alaska," he said.

After finishing law school at George Washington University, he came back to work for an Anchorage firm. He served two terms in the state House, representing downtown Anchorage, retiring in 1978.

Two years later, he made a bid for the U.S. Senate. In the Democratic primary, he ousted incumbent Mike Gravel, who had beaten his grandfather 12 years earlier. Elton calls Gruening's Senate run "Alaska's close brush with Camelot."

But in the general election of 1980, Gruening was beaten by Frank Murkowski during the Reagan landslide that gave Republicans control of the Senate. President Carter conceded the election five hours before polls closed in Alaska, suppressing Democratic turnout.

"As it turned out, I got more votes than Carter up here," he said. "But that wasn't saying a lot ... because he was clearly disliked over his actions in locking up lands."

Gruening didn't run for office again. But his foray into politics led to a business venture.

Gruening and his first wife, Melinda, had become good friends with his Senate campaign manager, John Hale, and his wife, Deena. They decided to open a wilderness lodge together on eastern Baranof Island.

A couple of months after putting down earnest money, the Hales were killed in a plane crash.

"It was really one of the most traumatic things, to lose a very close friend," Gruening said. "We decided to go ahead with that dream, worked on it a number of years, and in 1984 actually opened for business and ran the lodge for 10 years."

In 1995, Gov. Tony Knowles appointed Gruening to the Permanent Fund board, which Gruening had helped create as chairman of a special House committee.

Elton said Gruening played a key role last year during the debate about using some fund earnings to plug a state budget gap.

"I think he viewed his role as someone who was there to provide the best possible information anyone could provide," Elton said. "He did that without being an advocate for either side. I think he helped everybody because they knew they weren't getting a political answer."

The plan to tap fund earnings was rejected in the statewide advisory vote last September. Gruening said he's satisfied that the Permanent Fund board maintained its traditional neutrality, keeping its focus on minimizing any risk to the fund principal.

"There's a little discussion and tendency to want to sometimes get into the fray, but I think that tradition is really something we pay attention to," he said.

Later this month, the board will vote on a chairman for the next year, as well announcing the amount of this year's dividend. Gruening said he's open to another term as chairman but won't seek reappointment to the board in three years. After that, when his two sons will be out of college, he envisions traveling with his wife, Rosemary, writing "political mystery" books and learning new languages.

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