Former Alaska U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel passes

Mike Gravel

Former Alaska U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel died on Saturday at the age of 91, in Seaside, Calif. The cause of his death was myeloma.

A Democrat most of his life, he was Alaska’s senator from 1969 to 1981. He ran for president twice, in 2008 and 2020.

He was best known on the national scene for opposing the Vietnam War, trying to end the military draft, and reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record in 1971. Officially known as the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, the Pentagon Papers were stolen from the Defense Department by Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on the project for the Rand Corporation. The papers showed that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied to the public and Congress about the Vietnam War. The papers, once read into the Congressional Record, became fair game for newspapers to report.

Gravel was born and raised in Springfield, Mass. and moved to Alaska before statehood in the 1950s. He was looking for a “far-away place” where he could get a political start without having to have social or political connections, as he would have had to have in Massachusetts. He worked on the Alaska Railroad as a brakeman. He rose through the ranks of the Alaska Democratic Party, which was the dominant party in Alaska at the time. By 1957 he was a division chairman for Anchorage for the Democratic Central Committee and the next year he was president of the Alaska Young Democrats.

Soon after arriving in Alaska, he sold real estate and became a real estate developer, ran for the Alaska House of Representatives in 1962, and served in the House from 1963 until 1967. He served as Speaker of the House.

Gravel, whose full name was Maurice Robert Gravel, challenged Sen. Ernest Gruening in 1968 and beat him in the primary, and then went on to beat Elmer Rasmuson, banker and former mayor of Anchorage, in the general election. He played an important role in getting Congress to approve the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1973.

He unsuccessfully ran for vice president in 1972, was reelected for his final term in the Senate in 1974, and then was defeated in the primary by Clark Gruening, who was defeated in the general election by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, in 1980.

After his unsuccessful bid for the presidency as a Democrat in 2008, Gravel registered as a Libertarian, but failed to get the nomination.

In 2019, he briefly launched a bid for president again. He gained the following of youthful Democratic Party radicals and idealists, who employed novel social media tactics to gain attention for the aging candidate. Some of his close associates founded the Gravel Institute to continue his work in pushing the concept of direct democracy, as an alternative to representative democracy.

He also was an advocate for legalization of marijuana and was for a time president of a marijuana startup called KUSH, which made cannabis-infused products.

Read: Mike Gravel, former Alaska senator, exploring run for president at 88

An exhaustive biography of his life can be found at Wikipedia.


  1. We always first hear the news here in Must Read Alaska. Public Broadcasting and the Anchorage Daily News will report on this no later than tomorrow. I don’t vote for Democrats because they want to come take my guns, but history proved Gravel right on the Vietnam War of course, and within a year of his vote all the WWII veterans I knew, perhaps as many as 100 men, were wanting the US out of there. Government lying to us wasn’t the half of it. Springfield, MA was the home of Indian Motorcycles and of the US government arms factory that first made the M14. May Senator Mike rest in peace.

  2. Who says America is a racist country. It’s full of opportunity for opportunistic Americans like this guy, although I am not sure if he left Alaska any better a place to live than when he and other opportunistic Alaska leaders left.
    Our former and current k-12 public students are worse off than those going to school here in the 1940s-1965.

  3. Interesting read, Suzanne. Thanks for the short summation of his life. Gravel did pretty well for an outsider. He was focused……..unfortunately too much on progressive politics in his later years. That’s what did him in. Had he stayed on track with Alaskan issues and kept himself pragmatically focused, he might have gone further. His controversial moves in the US Senate unwound him. He had far more smarts than Frank Murkowski, who stayed in the game for 26 years by being a bumbling idiot. And now we have his idiot daughter. 41 years of Murkowskis. RIP Senator Gravel.

  4. Many Alaska State legislators in the 1980’s got their start in politics by working for Senator Gravel in DC. To name a few: Bettye Fahrenkamp, Pat Pourchot, Mark Boyer. Of course, all Democrats, and a few, of questionable integrity.

  5. Gravel’s vote to support selling F-15s to Saudi Arabia probably had more to do with his defeat in the Primary than anything else, those allegations of various indiscretions weighed on his campaign as well. That said, Alaskans, including Sen. Stevens and Rep. Young should have listened to him and killed ANILCA. Gravel was no friend of President Carter and believed Reagan would defeat him. Not only was Gravel right about that, Reagan brought with him a Republican Senate for the first time since the Forties and there was no way a bill like ANILCA could have passed. Alaska would be a much better and more properous place.

  6. There should be life-size statues of Mike Gravel and Spiro Agnew at the entrance-gates of Pump Station 1 and the Valdez Marine Terminal of the Trans Alaska Pipeline.

    In 1973, Senator Gravel’s special amendment allowed construction of the Trans Alaskan Pipeline to proceed after Vice-President Agnew voted in favor of the pipeline construction and broke a 49 to 49 tie in the Senate.

    Thanks again, Senator Gravel.


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