A Democrat recounts Alaska's party politics

Posted: Friday, September 22, 2006

The history of party politics and allegiance in Alaska can be traced in the lives of our delegates to Congress and representatives and senators.

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In the early years of government, in the first three decades of the 1900s, Alaska was mostly Republican. James Wickersham served as delegate to Congress for most of that time. Dan Sutherland was elected for several terms in the '20s.

But with the great Depression came change. We were not affected so much by the privation and economic paralysis that took place in the rest of the union. We had a small population and a robust mining and fishing industry. But the publicity of the dire national events influenced everyone and the Democrats took over.

There were very few Republicans elected in the 1930s and first part of the '40s. In 1935, there was only one Republican legislator, a well-known Alaskan, Andrew Nerland of Fairbanks.

Tony Diamond became our Delegate to Congress in 1932, to be succeeded a few years later by Bob Bartlett.

In the 1950s and '60s a sort of equilibrium took place. It often seemed to result in the Republicans being elected in one year to be followed two years later by a Democratic landslide and vice-versa. There was a mantra then, sadly lacking in today's political wars, that the voter being independent minded and proud of the open primary believed that he or she voted for the best man regardless of party label. I've heard this said many times 40 years ago.

I first got into politics during one of these swings against the Republicans in 1964. There were only ten of us elected out of the 40 members in the House of Representatives.

They included Bill Boardman, of Ketchikan, Carl Brady, of Anchorage, Ernie Haugen, of Petersburg, Bruce Kendall, of Anchorage, Carl Moses, of King Cove, Ted Stevens and Harold Strandberg, of Anchorage, Clem Tillion, of Halibut Cove, Sigurd Wold, of Fairbanks, and myself. A lot of Alaska history is wrapped up in these ten men.

To paraphrase William Shakespeare, we were a band of brothers, and perhaps a favored few.

Carl Moses continued as a Representative but in later years ran on the Democratic ticket. He recently is running in a close election in his Aleutian and Bristol Bay home district.

The most exciting election for me occurred in 1960 when my father beat Tom Stewart for the Senate seat in the local district which also included the Icy Straits communities, Yakutat and Haines, Klukwan and Skagway. His victory margin was two votes. I want to give praise to two of his most loyal constituencies, Funter Bay 10-0 and Klukwan, 59-4.

Things have changed in the last 30 years - probably not for the better. It is too lop-sided. There isn't enough of a critical minority in opposition that can occasionally come to the fore as the majority.

I facetiously say to my Baptist "born and baptized" wife that it is because of all the Baptists who came to Anchorage to work in the oil fields and in the supporting industries.

Who would have thought in 1960 or '64 that someday there would be 40,000 to 50,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in this state?

All those famous old Democrats like Diamond, Bartlett, Egan and Gruening would turn over in their graves, and, I guess, Wickersham, Sutherland and my dad would be chortling with Stevens, Young and Lisa Murkowski about the new order in the political universe.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fishbuyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70), who lives in Juneau.

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