Doing what your supervisor tells you? Unfashionable in State government

Art Chance
Art Chance



Craig Medred, whose columns are among the few strictly Alaska blogs I read with regularity, has a good piece on the history of appointments in the Department of Fish and Game and specifically on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s appointment of a new interim commissioner, Doug Vincent-Lang.

Lang is a career biologist in the department and the first person appointed as commissioner from the sport fishery side.

Fish and Game is long dominated, both politically and financially, by commercial fishing interests. Interestingly, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has made other appointments in ADF&G that come from more user-oriented backgrounds.

The Commercial Fisheries Division is the 800-pound gorilla. Nobody in the division would say anything to Craig Medred on the record, but he reports some rather colorful off-the-record comments about the new commissioner.

I know all about surly silence from State bureaucrats; it means they hate you but haven’t figured out how to take you out yet.

Here’s the money quote describing the new commissioner; it represents Gov. Dunleavy’s second greatest challenge behind finances in successfully running State government:

“’He has a penchant for doing what his supervisors tell him, and that skill has been increasingly marketable in the Department of Fish and Game since Frank Murkowski became governor in 2002,’ newly retired Anchorage area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott wrote in the Alaska Dispatch at the time.”

That statement isn’t true only in the Department of Fish and Game — it is true throughout State government.

There is very much a “deep state” in State government and it is a force unto itself.

I’ve derisively referred to them as the “congenital ‘crats,” others call them the “shape changers;” they’re the people who can remain in or near appointive positions through administration after administration regardless of policies or ideology.

Some are just amoral technocrats; they’d have made good SS majors as they would carry out any order with ruthless efficiency without a thought for the legality or efficacy of the order.  Others are truly vile manipulators and liars, the true shape changers who go from administration to administration feigning at least a grudging loyalty while looking for ways to do well by “doing good.”

Most are at least somewhat aligned with the Democrats but that is true of most State employees; it’s a lot safer if you have job with any authority to at least be on speaking terms with the Democrats and when they make the ritual after the election fund-raising visit to Juneau, whip out your checkbook.

It is only sort of safe to openly be a Republican in State government when you have a Republican Governor and you’d best be on call in some help terms with the governor because they’re coming for you.

Long-time, high-level State employees have a penchant for NOT doing what their supervisors tell them to do, though some are very good at making it look like they are.

The worst I ever saw it was in the Steve Cowper and Walter Hickel Administrations.

In the Cowper years, a lot of the high-level bureaucrats and appointees were 30-somethings hired under Govs. Jay Hammond or Bill Sheffield.

Cowper brought some of his own, but since practically everybody was at least nominally a Democrat he kept them on and often paid the price with astounding disloyalty.

The State was broke and we desperately needed concessions from the unions; we couldn’t even get the support of major portions of the administration to seek concessions.

We had people walk off bargaining teams because they wouldn’t support the governor’s objectives.

We had very high-level people who couldn’t be included in discussions of bargaining strategy and tactics because they were a direct pipeline to the unions.

It was made worse by the fact that the unions were fighting amongst themselves and the State was taking sides, though not as a matter of policy but out of personal animosity between high-level players in the unions and the State.

We kinda’ sorta’ held the line, but never really achieved any savings except by gutting the capital budget, wrecking the private economy, generating a lot of hate and discontent, and fundamentally changing the nature of politics in Alaska by putting all State employees save the Troopers in AFL-CIO unions, making State employees the most powerful force in the AFL-CIO, and thus public employees the most powerful force in Democrat politics.

In one of my very few forays into insubordination I back-channeled a memo to the governor asking him to step in and stop us from helping ASEA decertify APEA. I don’t know if he ever saw it, I know he didn’t stop us, and my boss looked at me cross-eyed for awhile.

It only got worse under Hickel. The Hickel people thought it was still 1968 and the Democrats were their friends across the aisle with whom they had a few minor policy differences. They didn’t realize that these weren’t their fathers’ Democrats; these were 30-something children of the Sixties, many of whom had carried around a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book” in their pocket in college.

I’ll never forget walking back from Gov. Hickel’s swearing in at Centennial Hall in a group of appointees and direct reports. A woman appointee married to another appointee (remarkably for Juneau they both had the same last name) summed up her view of the new government: “This is going to be like asking your parents for the car keys again.”

The holdovers simply went to war with the Hickel people and programs. The ‘crats and unions almost immediately chased a Hickel appointed director out of the Department of Labor. I watched as my director set up the commissioner by helping write and approve a memo on vetting new hires. That memo and vicious criticism of it was on the front page of the Juneau Empire and Anchorage Daily News practically before the ink was dry.

I watched that director and another holdover director go for the gold as they set up and took out two commissioners.

ASEA/AFSCME now represented our largest group of employees and they were still in the hands of national staff.   If you’ve ever wondered what happed to all the SDS radicals of the Sixties look no further than the offices of the big public employee unions in the Eighties and Nineties.

The leather-bound hornbooks, treatises, and reporters gathered dust as we studied Lenin, Mao, Trotsky, and especially Saul Alinsky.  It was open war on our supervisors and managers and the Hickel administration was so averse to any controversy that they really didn’t offer much protection from union/leftist attacks on either their appointees or supervisors/managers carrying out their policies.

The grievance traffic skyrocketed; we had a professional staff of six or so at the time and at times we had nearly a thousand active grievances. I practically lived before the Alaska Labor Relations Agency dealing with bargaining questions and unfair labor practice complaints.   If you look at the ALRA’s decisions in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, you’ll see my name on many an “appearance” line.

It  got worse in the Knowles Administration.  While we were beating ASEA like a rented mule in collective bargaining, they went out and bought themselves a governor.  ASEA went from racked-and-stacked for decertification to controlling the State’s labor relations policy.  Knowles first commissioner of administration waddled into our office and announced that he’d campaigned for the job with the unions and had promised them he would replace us all with people acceptable to the unions. He never got to keep that promise and in one particularly heated encounter I jeered at him that I would be going to his going-away party. I didn’t but I was there long after he was gone.

Alaska got pretty close to the old Soviet saw about how “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”   ASEA made life a misery for State supervisors and they got no support so they just stopped supervising; there’s no point in trying to discipline a poorly performing employee if the only result is the supervisor getting in trouble.   The more favored unions didn’t need grievances; they had the commissioner’s phone number.

But you can always count on lefties to overplay their hand. By the last couple of years, even the Knowles administration, once a wholly-owned subsidiary of ASEA/AFSCME, had had it with their union friends and understood that it was impossible to make them happy and have peace; they didn’t want peace; they wanted Trotsky’s never-ending revolution.

They made the mistake of attacking some Knowles appointees and for one of the very few times in my career I was allowed to cry “Havoc” and let slip the dogs of war. I made smoke and noise, broke things, and left a series of career-ending events in my wake as I took out a bunch of self-anointed radicals who thought they were untouchable. The silence was deafening.

When Frank Murkowski came into office, we resolved to keep it quiet on the labor front and it took a bit of whack-a-mole with self-styled radicals. But pretty soon peace broke out all over, supervisors were free to once again supervise and to get back to having employees doing what their supervisors told them to do, a quality that became increasingly marketable in State government.

I’m afraid Gov. Dunleavy is going to have to rebuild some of that marketability.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.


  1. Art, just an outstanding summary of the power of the government unions in this state. Maybe the ASEA has been replaced by the teachers unions as the most powerful now. Folks, remember when the legislature passes a bill, it is the bureaucrats (deep state) that implements the law–which may be just the opposite of the legislature’s intent. Happens all the time.
    Now Governor Dunleavy will be attacked by the Resistors. It has already started-one commenter on Dunleavy’s inaugural at Fairbanks mentioned that Dunleavy was riding a Can-Am which is made in Canada. Hold on for the ride and please support our new governor with emails, phone calls, etc. He is depending on us, the grassroots.

    • I understood it very well, and I agree with it in spite of bein a union man during my career. But I was educated in the 50’s and 60’s. Maybe schools didn’t teach reading so well when you were educated..

  2. Republicans in Alaska look like throwbacks to McKinley. It’s a weird place and a weird party. Placing them in the narrative as anti-Trotskyites is an interesting choice. I’ve always like my heroes to be less corrupt. I still prefer an actual governance by and for the people over corporate governance by proxy. I can’t choose who sits on the Board of Conoco Phillips. Capitalism isn’t a universal good nor government a universal evil.

    Dunleavy is looking like the first step in a long line of Democrat Governors. I’m regretting voting for him.

  3. I moved under Hickel, I had missed the governing history of Alaska, so I found this short history was a quick class on why this small population state is so filled with a glut of bureaucrats!.

    The cost per Alaskans is outrageously high due tos o many governmental employees. The high wages they demand and benefits they “bargin” for drives up the bar for the cost of employees in the business sector…

  4. I typically like these articles, but contradictions seem to stand out here. Just so there isn’t a concern about reading comprehension, it’s interesting that Art talks about how terrible state employees who don’t follow orders of the political appointees and “set them up” to be fired. Then he goes on to say that he did the same thing. Guess it takes one to know one. Or maybe it’s just hypocrisy.

  5. I just like to read about the perpetual shapeshifters. It’s almost comical. It’s like groundhog day year after year after year… administration after administration after administration. Sychophants. The sucking sounds.

  6. A good long, state government shutdown is what we need when oil goes below $55. State workers have no concept at all what it’s like to have your job/position terminated. All feel so entitled, and resentful of us in the private sector who actually have to produce something tangible in order to keep our jobs. State workers are the biggest lot of crybabies, and have the least to prove to justify their jobs. Reduce state government workers by 20% for starters and let them feel OUR pain!

  7. Just found your column and I like your “snarky” writing.
    I feel I can call you Wagon Wheel ______.
    A friend hired into a State position and felt gutted when
    Gov Duleavy asked his resignation.
    “a matter of lack of communication”?
    Write on.

  8. We need more commentators like Mr. Chance who gives detailed examples and observations supporting the axiom penned by Henry David Thoreau and further coined by Thomas Jefferson.


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