Politics, Eskimo style

Long before the Inupiat and the Yupik of Alaska proved themselves as capitalists, they excelled at politics.   After I was elected to the State Senate in 1982, I got to see it with my own eyes.

The Thirteenth Alaska Legislature, to the outsider, looked like an even split between Republicans and Democrats, 20-20 in the House, 10-10 in the Senate.  But there was a “third party” which controlled both chambers  —  the Bush caucus.

To Bush legislators, Native or non-Native, party affiliation meant nothing.  One Republican and two Democrat Bush Senators constituted the Senate Bush caucus, and they controlled the Finance Committee, and the chamber.  They put a regular Democrat in the President of the Senate’s chair, but they ran the show.

The six Bush members of the House were led by Finance Chair Al Adams of Kotzebue, and they made a Republican from Anchorage the Speaker of the House.  But Al Adams ran that show, and everybody knew it.

It took me a while to figure this all out.  I really didn’t know very much about Alaska, which I wanted to use as a stepping stone to the United States Senate.  At this time, in Washington, President Reagan was in the middle of his first term.  He was determined to win the Cold War, and that’s what really interested me.  I just wanted to get back there and lend a hand.

My Senate district in South Anchorage was mainly recent arrivals from the lower 48, who’d come up in the oil boom.  Most of the new real estate development was in the unpopulated south part of town, and these people were my constituents.  They thought the Natives were getting more than their share of the money pouring into Juneau from Prudhoe.  Regardless of what I thought privately, that had to be my position as well.

So I was opposed, politically, to the Senate Bush caucus, and its leader, Frank “Fergie” Ferguson, an Inupiat from Kotzebue.  But I liked Fergie, personally, and I think he liked me a little too.  He and I were with some other legislators having a few drinks at the Baranof Hotel bar one night, and Fergie got a little tight.  I had quite a few beers myself, and I guess I was being a little cocky.  Frank leaned over to me and smiled and said, “You’re not coming back.”

I was up for reelection in 1984, and I was making damn sure I was going to get reelected.  I didn’t have any money behind me, but I knew what I was doing, and I was determined to “come back.”  So I said to Fergie, “You can’t beat me!  Who have you got that can beat me?”  He just smiled and took a sip of his drink.

A month later Alaska Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz announced that he’d changed his mind.  He had tentatively ruled that the Hammond legislative reapportionment plan, under which I’d been elected, was constitutional.  Now he decided one odd district in Southeast Alaska was unconstitutional, and the new Democratic Governor would have to reapportion the state.  And he’d have the authority not only to fix the one unconstitutional district.  He got to reapportion the whole state.

Fergie knew what he was talking about, and I was one and done in the State Senate.  But I wanted revenge, and I came back after all.  I wasn’t in the Senate any more, but I was in the House.

There I got to know one of the finest men I met in politics, Al Adams.  Like Fergie, Al was an Inupiat from Kotzebue, but he had a wonderful, friendly personality.  Everybody liked Al.  And everyone respected him.  Every year he was in Juneau, from his freshman year in 1981, he wrote the operating budget for the state of Alaska.

It was an enormous amount of work, and a great responsibility, and called for a high level of political and financial skill.  Al performed superbly, year after year.

He didn’t drink during the session, but when we finally gavelled out he’d relax and party with the rest of us.  We were all on the fifth floor of the Capitol, whooping it up one year, when somehow a couple reporters got into the room.  Al had way too much to drink, so I grabbed him and took him down the fire escape, and away from those reporters.

The year before Babbie and I left Alaska we were down at Alyeska Ski Resort for New Year’s eve, and we ran into Al and his lovely wife Diane.  We had a nice dinner together, and talked about old times.  He was a lovely man.



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