On August 1st, 1977 the first tanker left Valdez loaded with crude from Prudhoe Bay. It was a big day in Alaska history. Until then Alaska was a poor state, almost completely supported by the federal government. The United States had a major national security interest in Alaska. If the Russians were going to use nuclear weapons against us, they’d come right across the state. So some of the economic activity which did take place was supported by the federal government.
Alaska was going to get rich, and quickly. The reelection campaign of Republican Jay Hammond would determine how that money was spent. Hammond wanted at least 25% of it to go into the Permanent Fund, where it would be protected from all the hungry wolves in the legislature. Hammond had served in the State Senate and he knew these guys. If they got the chance they’d piss it all away.
Hammond was portrayed as a moderate Republican, but that was untrue. He was , by nature, a conservative Christian man. His father had been a Protestant minister in New England, and he took his faith seriously. He just never talked about it. Once. Ever. He was painted as a moderate in the Railbelt because he was unabashedly pro-Native. He wanted the Native people to get as much of that oil money as possible. They had more of a right to it than anyone.
Opposing him in the primary was ideological conservative Tom Fink. He was considered inflexible, and he was. He was a man of principle, and one of his principles was that the money didn’t belong to the government, it belonged to the people. The idea of a Permanent Fund, with annual dividends going out, was socialism, as far as he was concerned. He wanted the money spent on capital projects, infrastructure. Tom was a devout Catholic with eleven children. And Tom was a great guy. He later served two terms as Mayor of Anchorage. I wish I’d gotten to know Tom better than I did.
The third candidate was former Governor, former Secretary of the Interior Wally Hickel. Hickel was a builder, and one of the richest men in the state. He was a ruthless businessman, with an outsize ego. A former amateur boxer, Hickel considered himself a complete bad ass. I was young back then, and I could see Hickel and Hammond getting it on. Hammond was a Marine Corps fighter pilot in WW II, and very powerful man. I could dream.
Bill McConkey and I had become good friends, and he brought me aboard as an unpaid volunteer. I didn’t know anything about Hammond, or the State of Alaska, for that matter. I just wanted to get into the United States Senate so I could raise some hell. I’d been a sergeant for Reagan in 1976, and I wanted a promotion.
A lot of people thought Hickel was going to use the Governorship to launch a Presidential campaign, and Bill wanted to accuse him of it. But the actual Hammond for Governor campaign couldn’t do it, because there would be a backlash. So Bill made me the chairman of a volunteer group he called Hands for Hammond. I was the only member of this group. Almost everybody in Anchorage, except the Natives, didn’t like Hammond, because he wasn’t going to let them have all the money. No one wanted to be associated with him. In Anchorage, home of both Fink and the vengeful Hickel, being associated with Hammond was not a good thing, politically, at all.
I didn’t really think about any of that. I’d only been in Alaska with Babbie for four years, and here I was in the middle of the most important election in the history of Alaska. Talk about fun. So I issued a press release accusing Hickel of quitting the job once, to go be Secretary of Interior, and here he was again, wanting to be Governor to use his position to run for President. The Anchorage Daily News made a story out of the press release. This had all been set up in advance. The Daily News hated Hickel.
It worked like a charm. Hickel was asked about it on the campaign trail, and he blew up. He was so pissed off that his reaction was way over the top. Hickel had a reputation for violent anger, and this reminder of that personality flaw cost him votes. How many, nobody knows. It’s certainly possible that it was 97, his margin of defeat.
This election, to a large extent, determined the future of Alaska, and its wealth. If Fink had won, everything would have been above board, and the wealth would be spent on massive infrastructure projects to develop the economy of the Railbelt. Fink didn’t dislike Natives. Far from it, like all real Alaskans, he loved the native people of Alaska. We all do. He just thought they should move to Anchorage and get a job.
If Hickel had won God knows what would have happened to that money. Some of the most amazing boondoggles in American history would have occurred, and a lot of people would have made a lot of money. He had no intention of running for President. He just wanted to get his hands on the money.
But Hammond pulled it off, by 97 votes. I was only on the periphery of the campaign, but it was an experience I’ll never forget. Because I was so ignorant about Alaska, I had no idea how significant it was. I’d stumbled into history. Hammond was able to complete his life’s work, the Permanent Fund. A quarter of that wealth sits there today. They really ought to call it the Hammond Fund.
I was making my way in Alaska politics. In ’74, fresh off the plane, I’d pissed off Mike Gravel in a letter to the editor. That caught the attention of Bill McConkey. In ’76, working for Reagan, I’d pissed off Ted Stevens by disrespecting his secretary. And here I was pissing off Wally Hickel, one of the most wealthy and powerful men in the state, and the patron of Ted Stevens.
I was making a name for myself. If I kept this up, I had a future in politics. What it was, was uncertain. But in Alaska, I was now a guy to keep an eye on..