Jack Coghill, 1925-2019, R. I. P.

One of the biggest fights in my time in the Alaska legislature was in 1987 over a proposed constitutional amendment to give Alaska’s Natives a priority in the taking of fish and game.  It was the brainchild of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, and he managed to get enough Republican votes in the Senate to get the 2/3 vote it needed.

Senator Jack Coghill of Nenana was one of his target votes, and the Stevens forces were organizing a boycott of Jack’s business.  I was the leader of the 16 member House Minority, and when I found out about this illegal maneuver I called the Juneau office of the FBI, and asked the local agent to come to my office in the Capitol to talk about it. Senator Rick Halford was there as well, and the news of the agent’s visit quickly spread through the legislature.  The boycott came to a screeching halt, and Jack held firm.

When Governor Steve Cowper called a special session that summer to try to muscle the bill through the House, I was on vacation in Santa Barbara with my family.  I had to jump on a plane to get back to Juneau, and my minority  caucus held firm.  We beat it with three votes to spare, thanks to the vote of then Democrat Dave Donley.

After the vote, Speaker Sam Cotten called me to the podium and told me the Governor wanted to talk to me.  I asked, “Why would I want to talk to him?”  Sam didn’t have an answer, and the special session was over.

One of the casualties of this vote was Senator Tim Kelly of Eagle River.  He ended his political career when he voted for the amendment.  But he was taken care of by Uncle Ted, and got a nice paying job out of it.  Before he left the legislature Tim passed a Resolution calling for the Anchorage International Airport to be named for Ted Stevens.  It was the only thing he did in the legislature that anyone remembers today.

In fact, the airport ought to be named for Jay Hammond, the 4th Governor of Alaska, and the man most responsible for the Alaska Permanent Fund.  All my time in Alaska, I was a Hammond man.  He was a great Governor, and a man’s man.  He and Jack Coghill are together now.

The kid from Alaska

One of my favorite stories is about the kid from Alaska, who gets admitted to Harvard.  He’s walking across the yard, sees a professor and asks, “Can you tell me where the library’s at?”

The professor says, “Young man, at Harvard we don’t end our sentences with prepositions.”

So the kid responds, “O.K., can you tell me where the library’s at, asshole?”

Minority rule in Alaska

15% of Alaska’s legislators are from rural, mostly Alaska Native districts, and are known as the Bush Caucus.  They’re mostly Alaska Natives and Democrats, but party label is meaningless to them, and many whites have played prominent roles.  They look out for their own interests, regardless of which party is in power.  Because of their flexibility, discipline and personal selflessness, Bush legislators have been in charge of the Alaska legislature since I arrived there in 1983, and long before that.  They are ruthless, relentless, and well organized.

For the last 20 years their leader in the Senate has been Lyman Hoffman of Bethel.  Hoffman was the protege of former State Senator George Hohman, who in 1981 was convicted of attempting to bribe Rep. Russ Meekins, and expelled from the senate.  Hohman returned to Bethel and continued to dominate its politics as acting city manager.  His $10,000 fine upon conviction was never paid.

In 1986 he put Lyman Hoffman into the House from Bethel, and in 1990 into the Senate.  Since 2000 Hoffman has led the Senate Bush Caucus, which has controlled the organization of the senate.  They have three votes between them.  They need eight more for a majority, and they will do whatever it takes to get them.  Given their druthers, they’d rather organize with Democrats, but Republicans will do just fine if needed.

The nominal leader of the Senate today is Kathy Giessel, but she owes her position to Lyman Hoffman.  She can’t go ahead against his wishes.  Hoffman controls the entire senate majority.

For the eight years I was in Juneau, the leader of all Bush legislators was Rep. Al Adams of Kotzebue.  I was always in the minority, but I always got along with Al.  Everybody liked Al, and respected him.  He was a very smart and genuinely nice man.

Al never drank during the session, but in 1986 at the adjournment party up on the fifth floor he got pretty wasted.  When I saw some reporters had gotten into the room I grabbed Al and took him down the fire stairs outside, and found someone to take him home.

Quite a few years later, on New Year’s Eve, Babbie and I had some drinks and appetizers with Al and his wife , when we ran into each other at the Alyeska Resort.  Al liked to tell about being on some trade delegation to China.  Everybody kept thinking he was a Chinese translator.  I think Al was close to full blood Inupiat, and he did look a bit oriental.  He really thought that was funny.

I served in the House with Lyman for four years, but never got to know him.  I don’t think he liked me, for some reason.  He never really had anything to say to me at all.  On a personal level, I got along pretty well with almost all the men and women I served with.  But not Lyman.


Anybody can get into politics.

When Alaska Governor Jay Hammond created a state senate seat for me in 1982, he did one hell of a job.  It was the most Republican district in the state, with no incumbent.  This was the district that elected C. R. Lewis, a national director of the John Birch Society, to the state senate  I wasn’t much of a candidate, but I should win comfortably.

Actually, I was a terrible candidate.  I’ve never been social, more of a loner.  In Alaska Babbie and I were totally occupied with our three boys, and had no social life to speak of.  I’d been involved in a Governor’s race, and a U. S. Senate race, but I never went to meetings, of any kind.  I’d only been in the state eight years, I owned part of a bar, and had an undistinguished career as a lawyer.

My looks didn’t help.  I was a pretty big guy, and I looked like a bouncer. When I went door to door these housewives didn’t know what to make of me.  It’s like they really didn’t believe me when I said I was running for the senate.

But my buddy Bill McConkey did a TV spot of myself, Babbie, and the three boys seated at our feet.  What I said made absolutely no impression.  But my family made me look good.

I won 52-48, and began an eight year career as a state legislator.  Parts of it, I enjoyed.