Ayers says Alaska has lost its soul

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2001

Jim Ayers, chief of staff to Gov. Tony Knowles for seven years, announced Tuesday that he will resign Jan. 4 to take a position with an international environmental group.

Ayers often is referred to as the second most powerful person in the executive branch but usually has wielded his influence out of the public eye.

In an hour-long interview with Empire reporter Bill McAllister, Ayers discussed his role in the Democratic administration, presented his take on how the governor and legislators have worked together, or not, and expressed concern about the tone of Alaska politics.

The interview has been edited for length, flow and readability.

What have you done, exactly?

You know, I think that -- if you'll excuse the baseball metaphors, because it's easier for me -- you know I really think a chief of staff, first of all, their job depends on who the governor is. This governor is a very hands-on governor. He's spent most of his adult life in Alaska, and he's been mayor of Anchorage, and he's been a friend of rural Alaska. In that regard, the chief of staff's job is really not trying to set the course but develop the strategies -- more of a bench coach. Coaching as opposed to bossing really is a chief of staff's job with this governor.

The cabinet here, the first job is to draft the players, right? The governor made up his mind that he wanted to have the best cabinet that the state has seen. It certainly is, in my view, one of the premier teams that ever has been put together, on any issue I'm familiar with. He generally involved me and allowed me to talk about who could best play what position. You can have a bunch of good players, but if the chemistry isn't right, the team's going nowhere. I mean, you might have a Barry Bonds or a Ken Griffey Jr., but if you don't have a team and team chemistry, superstars are going nowhere, as a team.

Are you the second most powerful person in the administration, as you are often described? Comment was made at this meeting I just came from: "Well, there's no road (to Skagway) because Jim Ayers loves the ferry system."

I think Tony Knowles is the most powerful person in Alaska right now, just because of the way our constitution works. I've not used our professional relationship or our personal friendship to gain power. And I hope I've never used it in an unkind way.

To what extent are you behind the policy of agencies and departments?

I think any commissioner will tell you I talk to them about personnel matters. I'm a big believer that you draft according to chemistry.

The other thing I think they will tell you is I, by and large, have not ordered people to do things. I certainly talk to them about how we're going to go about it. I spent a lot of time with Fish and Game when we were trying to open the NPR-A (National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska).

So you're the make-it-so guy.

Yeah, my job is to make it so. I've generally said, "What is the objective here?" I'm influential in making sure that he has the information and making sure that he has the right people to talk to him about it.

I don't think with regard to the road I'm any more influential than anyone else. I think you could build the road; it's physically possible. But Joe Perkins, the commissioner of DOT, brings information over here with finance people that tells me that would cost someplace between $240 million and $400 million. Now what thing in Alaska would you not do? You could build all the schools on the waiting list for $240 million. What would Fairbanks and Anchorage and all these people, what would they be willing to give up? I just don't see it. I appreciate that people think I'm that powerful. But the facts are more powerful than I am.

I would lead the march to fund the construction of that road if I thought it would bring Alaskans together.

So it's never been the case since statehood that an administration has, every year of its existence, faced a Legislature completely controlled by the opposite party?

That's my understanding. In the case when it was, it was a coalition. Back in the (days of) Clem Tillion, Jay Kerttula, Johnny Sackett, Frank Ferguson -- I just named two Republicans and two Democrats - but they would form coalitions, primarily in the Senate.

In the beginning, we would knew it was going to be tough.

That was Newt Gingrich's year.

Gingrich. The whole movement. The Rush Limbaugh - whatever that is. That whole extreme right movement, that they were going to redo government and not just reform welfare, but eliminate it. Economic efficiencies before social justice - in my view, that was most the clear operational definition.

So what it has been like the whole time? Because my observation of this past year is that it's pretty toxic. The relationship between this floor and the Legislature is not good, I think, by most reasonable standards.

Here's what I think. I've played the game. We by and large get things done, right? People said Smart Start - there was even an headline, I think maybe in your newspaper: "Smart Start: Dead on arrival." And it was some quote from a Republican about three or four years ago. Well, we passed Smart Start (a child-protection program). We're funding Denali KidCare, the children's health program. We're doing child-protection issues. We've increased funding on education when they were saying "no new money."

I know it's been very tough on me. Since I've been in this job, I've been through cancer, I've dealt with a back surgery. I don't feel like I've missed work much, but I've missed a lot of sleep. It's been hard on my family. I think the same is true with some people in the Legislature.

It's been a tough time because we're ferreting out dealing on big issues. Welfare reform is a great issue. The governor vetoed the first welfare-reform bill, and they had more than three-quarters of the Legislature, but they didn't override our veto. And then we introduced legislation; we had to go back and do it.

Same way with education funding, standards and that kind of thing. When we first started this thing on testing, their bill was simply going to institute this exit exam. We came in with 16 pages of standards on improving education and didn't necessarily push the exit exam.

There are people, primarily over in the state Senate, who believe that rural Alaska has a great deal or gets an unfair share. Dave Donley and Robin Taylor worked for the last four or five years, because they're finally in the majority and they're going to set things straight. Well, that's preposterous. We're one people, and we're Alaska.

There have been tremendous battles. My view is the state's a better place. We ultimately pass good legislation. But when you go through those battles, and you come out of those battles, you have feelings about what went on in that battle. Most people, I think, in the Legislature are statespeople. They care about Alaska.

But I don't think it's toxic between the governor's office and the second floor. I think it's toxic between some individuals. I think there are people who have turned out to be mean-spirited; they're angry about a lot of things. And then they focus that anger and frustration on the governor because he's a Democrat.

And he's been by and large successful in moving his program through. And they've had a majority, and they haven't prevailed overall. Like, they didn't destroy us.

Five or six people now, they're not going to deal with subsistence. They know what they don't want to have happen; they don't know what they do want to have happen. They don't have a vision. Or if they do have a vision it's to take money out of rural districts that they think have too much money and put it into other districts.

There are a few people and they are the cause of subsistence not being resolved.

So I think what's toxic is there's a handful of people that have come out of these battles and they're angry; they're mad. If you ask some Republicans, you know, the people who act out in the caucus.

But I think even the presiding officers in each chamber have at different times expressed to me this year a great deal of anger at the way things went down at the end of the session.

Yeah, but that's press stuff now. You're talking press stuff now. You're talking eighth-grade bathroom.

For example, Sen. (Rick) Halford said that he was up here with you in the waning hours (in May) cutting some deals allowing the session to end. And then he felt when the governor came out with the whole thing about a special session, the tone of it, and taking credit for some things and not sharing credit and so forth -- he expressed some sense of having been double-crossed.

My view is that Sen. Halford and I have done business. I have a lot of respect for Sen. Halford. He was actually in this office, and we did put a lot of things together from education and schools to water and sewer, some critically important things for people in Alaska. He's absolutely right.

And he absolutely was instrumental in helping bring this session to a close in a way that allowed people throughout this state not only to receive services, but be somewhat proud of their government. Obviously, I couldn't have done any of that without him; we couldn't have done any of that without him. Session probably still wouldn't be over had we not done that. The gulf was immense.

I also think there have been other sessions where they held their press conference and took credit for a lot of things, including budget reductions where we figured out how to do that with the least amount of pain on the people of Alaska. We bailed their ass out on welfare reform, and never trashed them.

I'll say this: Credit is the currency of politics. And the extent to which he, Rick Halford, or other people in the Legislature, did not get their share of the currency, I would feel badly. But I don't feel that the public believes that. If you ran a poll, I don't think there's 10 percent of the people of Alaska that think that somebody did a better job than the other guy, at least as far as the end of this session is concerned.

I think the Legislature's problems with the public and the public's view is the people who sometimes speak in such extremes for the Legislature and draw lines in the dirt.

We solved incredible problems at the end, things that people said weren't going to get fixed. They weren't going to fund rural schools. And by and large, there were a lot of good things: VPSOs (village public safety officers), suicide prevention, health care for children.

The governor within an hour and a half or two hours right after that put his spin on it, saying, "Well, we were able to do this." Could he have done a better job of giving credit? And the answer is yes.

I think the whole thing with the timing of the special session just stuck in Halford's craw.

I've avoided that. Rick's been around here a long time; Rick and I have known each other a long time. I think anybody who didn't know there was going to be a special session over cruise ships either wasn't listening or didn't want to hear it.

Well, again, it was the timing.

He and I have had a personal conversation about that. We didn't know everybody's personal travel schedule. Whose problem are you going to solve?

It just was the chairman who was the final stumbling block in the regular session.

I've known John Cowdery; I ran against him in 1982 (for the House in Anchorage). And he beat me 52 to 47, or something.

I've known John a long time, and all of that was poppycock. If he had wanted to work out something different, he could.

I felt bad, now good for his wife (who was facing surgery). I'm glad things have turned out all right, as I understand it. But all that to-do is really just a finesse with the press.

But didn't the fact that it happened just reveal some sort of dysfunction between the administration and the Legislature?

I think that there are manipulations that go on all the time for people to try. If you have the votes, you call for the question. If you don't, you keep talking. That is a basic strategy of all politics, in my view. If you have the votes, you just keep driving until you get it to the floor. And I can't believe anybody who's been in politics doesn't understand that. We knew if it went to the floor people were going to vote for it. They thought if they kept talking, it would all come to an end. They were convinced that the clock would run out.

So are you saying that this is something just to be expected in the normal pull-and-tug of legislative business and not evidence of a greater systemic problem that needs addressing in Alaska politics?

I think the way that some things were ended, in terms of an organized press conference and timing -- do I think that portion of scheduling could be better? Yes. Do I think that that particular process will change? No. Because that's how the process works.

And I'll say another thing: There's never enough pressure around there until the clock starts to run out. You can't get the big things done until there's enough pressure to force them. Big things don't happen until there's so much pressure that something has to happen.

Just coincidentally, in the last 24 hours, a couple of people have made similar comments: (Juneau Sen.) Kim Elton said there's a realization coming that we have to work together, not divide and conquer; tone down the hot rhetoric; and so forth. And then Joe Geldhof was talking to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce transportation committee about an idea he has about how this Juneau access issue can be compromised. And he says we have a dysfunctional situation in Juneau and in Alaska, in which we don't compromise and everyone digs in and demonizes the other side.

So I'm wondering to what extent some of the things we've seen in the legislative process you might agree reflect that dysfunction, and how much of it is just the way it is?

I think you've said it better than I did. My view is that there was a time in Alaska, and I think the Legislature reflected that -- Clem Tillion, a big-time Republican, and Jay Kerttula, big-time Democrat, right? Frank Ferguson, a Democrat from rural Alaska. John Sackett, a Republican from rural Alaska. Chancey Croft. Jay Hammond. Those guys got together and decided what they thought -- they'd argue it out -- but what was best for Alaska. They made decisions during the session. So people in the Matanuska Valley cared about what went on in Juneau. People in Juneau cared about what went on in Kodiak.

I don't know whether elected officials are leading the dysfunction or they're reflecting the dysfunction. But I do think that it is the case that people are more concerned about what they have and what they're going to get than they are about the other Alaskans. I think that's true in the Legislature right now. The state's biggest problem is our unwillingness to accept others and our unwillingness to help others in the state.

Alaska's culture right now doesn't have soul. We've lost our soul. Because we have lost that emphasis on Alaskans doing what's best for each other and for Alaska.

How did that happen?

I think it's money. I think avarice is one of the seven deadly sins, and I think somehow we've made it OK in Alaska to get your poke and get out of here and not contribute anything. Alaskans feel like they have to fight with each other. Mat-Su or somebody vs. Juneau, and Ketchikan vs. the North Slope Borough. I mean, those are two real conflicts going on that turn up and manifest themselves in all sorts of battles down here.

So much money came through here, and now we mail out money from the permanent fund. I think the dividend's a great thing. It'll probably pay for most of my son's college. But it's caused us to believe that it's OK to get ours and not care about the other people's families or children. It's OK to say, "Hey, cut that welfare thing, but don't take my permanent fund dividend check." And if my community needs jobs, it's OK for me to go steal those jobs or take down another community; make them the bad guy. Demonize, as you say.

Is the PFD kind of a root cause or the primary cause of this?

I think it's a cycle. I think that if you look at the brochures that people have put out particularly over the last five or six years -- and I remember legislators, leadership screaming at the governor "no new taxes" and voting down our proposal for a balanced budget -- but I think that people's brochures are, "Vote for me. I'll protect your permanent fund dividend. I don't believe in taxes. And if we need more jobs, I'll move the capital or I'll do something to another community. I'll get that Coast Guard cutter in our community; it shouldn't be in Kodiak." The Alaska Marine Highway System: Ketchikan fights with Kodiak about home-porting ships, that kind of thing.

Yeah, I think that the permanent fund dividend, for all of its good, has created a sense that people don't have to contribute anything to the state. We don't ask Alaskans to give anything back. And it's time that they did.

Unless our political and religious leaders are willing to step up and say it's time to give something back, it's time to care for others more than we care for ourselves. Until that happens, it's a serious dysfunction.

My guess is religious leaders are doing that; some of them, anyway.

I don't know. I'll say this about religious leaders: I don't think the religious leaders in this state -- The Catholic Church and the Mormon Church jumped out there on the gay rights, or the constitutional gay marriage, same-sex marriage issue. They brought in thousands of dollars and did major marketing and promotion and advertisements. But I haven't seen them make that kind of an effort on acceptance and bringing rural kids together with urban kids, and running major advertisements about how it's time for Alaska to find its soul again. I haven't seen any of that.

They probably give a nice sermon on Sunday. I've heard them; I go to church. But I have not seen the kind of movement to bring Alaskans together, to care for one another, to care for what happens to our children, the way I saw them invest energy and time and letters and epistles on same-sex marriage. They're capable of organizing; they're capable of raising money.

I think subsistence is another reflection of the same thing that you're talking about. If a whole group of people, a very specific group of our culture, of our family, are disenfranchised from the very thing that has been the primary source of their existence for time immemorial -- they're part of our family, they're part of our culture, yet we continue to deny them that.

Perhaps a naive question: It being so important, as you've just outlined, why hasn't the governor played real hardball on subsistence? I mean, really used the veto pen as leverage.

He certainly has called special sessions.

He's called special sessions on the topic. But why not take it to other topics?

I think there have been discussions of whether or not the governor should veto specific items in specific people's districts. And let me tell you, we've talked about a variety of strategies of how to reach our objective of passing a constitutional amendment -- actually, just letting the people vote on subsistence. It takes an incredible balance of prudence and frustration to deal with the power of the governor's veto.

Escalation as opposed to education could make things worse. To take out a school building in an urban area over subsistence is not the right approach, in our view. Our view was we could make things worse using red ink as opposed to the pulpit. I think the governor made that decision early on.

But how is the alternative approach that you've pursued bearing any fruit? There was the summit, there was the drafting committee, you have the (proposed) amendment. Yet, 10 votes against it in the Senate, as far as I can tell, none of them wavering. What is ultimately the use of all of that?

I don't know. I think it took Gandhi 17 years, right?

I think that the people of Alaska need to do this. And Alaska will only be healed when the people of Alaska make the significant changes that have to be made. When the people of Alaska rise up and insist that subsistence be voted on, one way or the other, they'll throw out the people that cause it to be stopped. When the people decide that they actually want schools and they no longer want this battle and they're willing to pay a tax or use some of the earnings of the permanent fund for the services, it will happen. But until the people do that, we're not going to heal. There will continue to be the dissension.

I think the paintball incident is a watershed incident, in my mind, that reflected all that's wrong in Alaska right now. (Natives in Anchorage were attacked by paintballs.)

Do you make the case that there was something about the climate, that people in positions of responsibility could have done something about beforehand, that made such an incident more likely?

Absolutely. Absolutely. I'll just go back to this: I think political and religious leaders have a responsibility right now more than any other time in our history to talk about how important it is to accept others that are different. Our schools ought to be doing it. Our churches ought to be doing it. Our political leaders ought to be doing it.

I know that's very idealistic on my part. But that's what's wrong with Alaska right now.

The paintball incident, to me, was this continuation -- it's OK to go out and ridicule gays, it's OK to talk about the environmental, tree-huggin' ruination of America, it's OK for people to demonize groups because of their race, their sexual orientation, their environmental foundation. We encourage all of that to the point, as you say, it's gotten toxic. And my view is, so why wouldn't a bunch of kids think it was OK to go out and get a paintball and shoot somebody who's of a different culture than they are?

You're saying these problems can't get resolved until Alaskans want them resolved. Yet when they go to the ballot box on legislative candidates -- you look at a year ago, what was on the ballot the Legislature put there, and what voters did with it, and what they did with the folks that put it there -- there's a disconnect. What's that about?

Exactly that. They don't have the commitment of their own convictions -- yet.

One of my greatest mentors, one of my closest friends -- (the late) Bishop (Michael) Kenny. He went over to ANB and apologized for all of the, if not sins, the discrimination that Natives had suffered. Personally went over there and said as a bishop of the Catholic Church, "I want to hold a ceremony and I want to apologize. I want you to know Alaska is not Alaska without you. We are not a people, we are not a family, we are not whole, until we have all resolved the major conflict of our disassociation from one another."

Are you Catholic?

Most days.

Religious leaders go off on this tangent on women's rights. And they'll spew their guts out over this whole thing about women's rights and abortion -- not that they're not correct about it. But that they think that is what they need to do but they have no responsibility to talk about the importance of the subsistence way of life in rural Alaska, tolerance of one another, acceptance of different cultures and one another, and that this hatred among our communities ought to stop. Why? Because it'll offend somebody. They don't have the courage.

I think it's probably what's wrong with the world, actually.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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