Alaska awaits momentous election

Voters go to the polls in a high-profile political environment

Posted: Monday, November 03, 2008

As Alaskans head to the polls in record numbers, they will be weighing in on what historians agree will be one of the most important elections in the state's 50-year history.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Not only will they cast their votes in a presidential election that includes Gov. Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate but they just may decide to end the political careers of Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, two members of Congress with extraordinary longevity and influence over the state.

"The election overall is a big one and an important one, and it's getting people engaged in the process," said Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"We will have more young voters and more minority voters than we have had in recent years - perhaps ever - and that means the prospect of losing one or two members (of Congress). That would be significant, just in changing the political color of the Alaska delegation."

With long lines forming for early voting at regional election centers, Alaskans are already deciding whether to return 40-year veteran Stevens and 36-year veteran Young, or send Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich or former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz in their place.

If voters throw out the old for the new, neither Democrat would have the clout that seniority carries, particularly in the Senate. They would have the advantage of belonging to what promises to remain for now the majority party in both bodies.

That affiliation would allow them to gain traction more quickly, said Steve Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"And they are going to have to learn what all the others have had to learn: how to educate Congress and explain Alaska's needs in a context that will allow them to continue funding in Alaska," he said.

Stevens and Young are masters at the game of bringing home federal dollars, which account for a third of the state's economic base. Without the veteran lawmakers, Haycox said the state would likely see a drop off in transportation funds and earmarks - the controversial provisions added onto legislation that direct money to a particular organization or project in a politician's home state.

But both Stevens and Young also are weighed down by a continuing federal corruption probe that has reached deep into Alaska's political structure. Stevens was convicted last month of seven felony counts of lying on financial disclosure records, which he says he will appeal. Young is the subject of several federal investigations, although he has not been charged with anything.

The scandal is certain to be on voters' minds. Juneau economist George Rogers, who was a consultant to the 1955 Alaska Constitutional Convention, said the election is momentous because the federal corruption probe has exposed a need for fundamental change. He said too many political leaders have strayed from the ideals that launched the young state, allowing greed and partisan politics to prevail instead.

"I was hoping for a calm old age where we could say, 'Here we are. We did well.' But it's just the reverse," said Rogers.

With three former state legislators in jail - two for taking bribes from an oil services company - the election also becomes a referendum on the state's relationship to Big Oil, said Haycox. It was already in flux under the Palin administration, which not only raised taxes on the industry but stood its ground against the state's big three oil companies in crafting natural gas line legislation.

"The dependency (on the oil industry) flies in the face of the frontier rhetoric of independence and self reliance. Will the outcome continue the reshaping of our relationship with the oil industry? I don't foresee any retreat," said Haycox.

Asked what other elections carried similar weight, Haycox listed Wally Hickel's election as governor in 1966 with his promise to bring expertise to the state's budding relationship with oil. The 1974 election was also significant for newly elected Gov. Jay Hammond's emphasis on environmental responsibility, he said.

McBeath recalls the 1980 presidential election in which Republican Ronald Reagan ousted incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter. The loss prompted Carter to sign into law, during the last days of his administration, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The sweeping federal legislation set aside 104 million acres of Alaska land for parks, national forests and other conservation units.

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