Alaska needs new bumper sticker

Hopes rise for a transparent, ethical government led by a reform Republican, Gov.-elect Palin

Posted: Sunday, November 19, 2006

Remember the bumper sticker: "Alaska, Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod?"

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Alaska needs a new sticker after Gov.-elect Sarah Palin's decisive victories in the primary and general elections, and Lisa Murkowski's defeat of former Gov. Tony Knowles in 2004 for the U.S. Senate.

The 250,00 Alaskans who register with no party left a message at the polls. Party leaders ignore it at their peril. No-party voters outnumber registered Republicans and Democrats combined by 68,500.

Palin is a reform Republican. After she exposed the ethics violation by the state's Republican Party chairman, and after she filed an ethics complaint against Gov. Frank Murkowski's first attorney general, Palin beat two Republican leaders in the primary election. One was the sitting governor and former U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski. The other was a former state legislator, John Binkley. Her 51,500 votes were 1,500 more than Murkowski and Binkley combined.

Although Democrat votes were split between only two candidates compared to three for Republicans, Palin garnered 14,000 more than Knowles.

Then in the general election, Palin bested Knowles by 16,000.

Palin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski are two new Republican stars.

Voters told Democrats they need new stars, someone like relative unknown Diane Benson (sorry guys, another lady). She attracted almost as many votes as Knowles in her attempt to unseat U.S. Rep. Don Young. Another Democrat star might be Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. He led a move to lower property taxes in Anchorage.

Problems for the Democratic and Republican parties began with statehood. The push for statehood was bipartisan. Republican leaders included National Committeeman Wally Hickel, later governor and Interior secretary, and newspaper publishers Bob Atwood of the Anchorage Times and Bill Snedden of the Fairbanks News-Miner. Democrat leaders included constitutional convention Chairman Bill Egan, former Gov. Ernest Gruening and delegate to Congress Bob Bartlett.

Driving the desire for statehood was federal mismanagement. In the last four years that the feds managed fisheries, salmon catches averaged 25 million fish a year. It took state managers 30 years to rebuild runs to allow a harvest of more than 100 million a year.

Federal managers made Democrats out of fishermen and their sympathizers. So did industry leaders opposing statehood for fear of taxes. So in the first state election in 1958, Alaskans favored Democrats: Egan as governor, Gruening and Bartlett as U. S. senators and former territorial attorney general Ralph Rivers as congressman. They elected 53 Democrats to the Legislature vs. six Republicans and one Independent (Jay Hammond).

Power corrupts. Democrats closed primary elections. They even provided ballots with a circle at the top where a voter could put an X to vote the entire party ticket instead of tiring himself out by putting an X in front of each favored name.

Voters "threw the rascals out" in 1966. The Legislature went to 39 Republicans and 21 Democrats. At the same time, Hickel was elected governor over Democrat Egan. Voters also looked askance at Egan seeking a third consecutive term, claiming he hadn't served two full terms because Alaska didn't become a state officially until Jan. 3, 1959, a month after his first term started.

One of the first bills through the Legislature signed by Hickel opened the primaries. Hickel left halfway through his term to be Interior secretary. Democrats made a halfway recovery in 1970 when Egan was elected governor again. But many of the Democrats in that recovery became the anti-establishment Ad Hoc supporters of George McGovern's failed bid for the presidency in 1972.

Democrat power was starting down. Some switched to no-party. President Jimmy Carter accelerated the slide when he signed the Democrat-sponsored Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. That made Republicans out of some Alaskans but more switched to no-party. Environmental activists filled some of the Democratic void.

Most Alaskans support environmental protection while developing resources and building infrastructure. They just want it done right. Promising to build infrastructure and develop resources elected Frank Murkowski as governor.

Many Democrats in and out of Alaska oppose Alaska development as President Bill Clinton demonstrated in vetoing opening of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, and as Gov. Knowles exhibited in vetoing a land grant to the University of Alaska.

The prize for boneheadedness is shared by both parties, first for creating closed primaries and then reinstating them instead of making their parties attractive to Alaskans.

Voters saw Democrat Knowles flitting around the state in a private jet promising free money to everyone when he sold the state's jet. His promises didn't fly. The state still owes $2.5 million on the $2.5 million aircraft.

Republicans retained their party chairman after he admitted ethical violations and some publicly slapped Palin by switching to Knowles.

While the losers recover their composure, Alaskans' hopes rise for a transparent, ethical government headed by a reform Republican.

• Lew Williams Jr. is a retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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