Juneau divide: Republicans and Democrats




I lived in Juneau from 1984 until late 2010 and for most of that time was far enough up the government food chain that most people in government and politics knew me.

Since I’ve lived in both Juneau and the South, I can say without reservation that Juneau is as segregated as a small Southern town was in the Fifties.

Ds go to D places and do D things, and Rs go to R places and do R things.  The only time they meet is when they’re being paid to do so or for some public events, and even then the Ds sit with the Ds, and the Rs with the Rs.

Early in my State career, a union representative and I could yell at each other all day in arbitration or across a negotiating table and get together for a drink afterwards and critique each other’s performance; the union guy was my adversary at work, but not my enemy and it was almost never personal.

That had all but ended by the mid-Nineties. There were a few of us old throwbacks who’d been in the labor relations trade for a long time and had worked both sides of the table at various times in our lives who could get along socially, but only a few — and fewer every year.

Juneau is a center-left town and more left than center, especially in downtown and Douglas.

State government grew exponentially under Govs. Bill Egan and Jay Hammond and the bureaucracy was thoroughly Democrat. Even though he was nominally a Republican, Hammond’s administration was predominantly Democrat and they set the culture of the government and its employees that largely remains today.

I was walking back from Gov. Walter Hickel’s swearing in with a group of people just below political level management. One of the group (the wife of a very nervous Gov. Steve Cowper appointee) remarked, “This is going to be like having to ask your father for the car keys again.”

But not much really changed inside the government or in the culture of the government. Some of the Hickel people tried, but it was like pushing a rope.

There was also one helluva lot of controversy. The unions had settled the disputes that came out of the oil price crash of the Eighties almost entirely through collective bargaining processes and the courts, and they had a union-backed governor in Bill Sheffield, who would give them what he could so long as he could get away with not reporting it to the now largely Republican-controlled Legislature.

Hickel was totally foreign; his brief first term wasn’t remembered by many because the government was so much smaller.   Nobody in the government had ever really worked for a Republican administration before, and with a Republican Alaska Legislature to boot.

Then there was AFSCME/ASEA, which had taken over representation of the 8000+ member General Government Unit in 1988.  This was Alaska’s first experience with the big national public employee unions; all of our unions had been either independent associations or affiliates of trade unions or NEA.

The Juneau chapter of the GGU was full of self-styled 1960’s radicals and self-anointed working class heroes and were the primary impetus of AFSCME coming to Alaska.

Since Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals meant more to AFSCME than dull old labor relations hornbooks, the stage was set for singing songs and carrying signs in the street and mau-mauing supervisors and managers.   The employer was no longer just somebody with different interests; the employer was evil.

Like most Republicans they left a lot of holdovers in place and then wondered why they were leaked, thwarted, and sabotaged constantly.

Also like most Republicans they didn’t know how to push the rope of State government but were too suspicious of State employees to ask anyone. In truth, that suspicion was justified.  I watched two holdover directors set up and take out two of Hickel’s commissioners.  That was early on and the Hickel people hadn’t yet figured out that they were under attack and they had to protect their people no matter what.

ASEA carried the spear on mau-mauing a director in the Labor Department and getting her fired.

Then Nancy Usera became commissioner of Administration, and while Nancy didn’t know a lot about running the government yet, she had figured out that holdovers and unions were not the Hickel Administration’s friends. We were at war for the first three years of Hickel and when he announced he wasn’t seeking re-election it settled down to a sullen ceasefire as the political winds blew.

They bought a governor and then things really went to Hell.  Unlike Republicans, Democrats don’t have the problems getting rid of holdovers; they just fired everybody who’d ever had a Republican thought even down into the merit system.

Our first Gov. Tony Knowles commissioner of Administration swaggered into our office and announced that he’d campaigned with the unions to get the job and that he’d promised them that he was going to replace us all with people acceptable to the unions, which really meant people acceptable to ASEA/AFSCME.

For a long time I had the tape of a call from an ASEA rep who was also a Knowles campaign official in which she jeered at me about the pool they had in the ASEA office about how many seconds Dianne Corso and I would be employed after Knowles took office.

We were apolitical merit-system technocrats who had just done what our bosses told us to do.

Commissioner Mark Boyer didn’t make good on his promise to fire us, but all the senior staff found places to be outside of State Labor Relations and just watched it go to Hell — except me; I went to work for the Legislature with Boyer’s misery as my mission and helped it go to Hell.

By the middle of Knowles’ first term, there were no “friends across the aisle” in Juneau or much of anywhere else in State government, and I damned well wasn’t an apolitical technocrat or a Democrat anymore.

By early Gov. Murkowski, I was an appointee and my “bubble” was Murkowski’s elected and appointed officials and Republican legislators.

I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with a Democrat other than a few union officials that I go back a way with since the mid-Nineties unless I was being paid to have that conversation. I’ve only rarely even been in the same room with a Democrat unless I was being paid to be there except at big public events or casual encounters, and we sure as Hell don’t backslap and chat.

In my 30-odd years of dealing with unions and Democrats, 20-something of them in Juneau, I applied a simple rule taught to me long ago when I was on the union side by an old-fashioned trade unionist: I make sure that before they dare to do anything, they have to think about what I’ll do about it.

Senior Contributor 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. He only writes for Must Read Alaska when poked with a stick. Chance coined the phrase “hermaphrodite Administration” to describe a governor who is both a Republican and a Democrat, and strangely neither.


  1. Interesting opinion piece that I think sums up how our state has changed.
    I was a public member, appointed by Cowper, to a Commission that had started a study of sentencing in Alaska when Governor Hickel was elected. I was told to expect to be replaced because I had been appointed by a Democrat. This did not happen and in fact Governor Hickel later appointed me to another board.
    I later went on to serve on various boards and commissions, appointed or left on, by Knowles, Murkowski and Palin.
    Since that time, my days of public service are over due to my retirement but I have kept up with the changes in Juneau and it is disheartening that there is so must division.
    I prefer now being a registered “No Party” and am disgusted with the Democrats in Juneau who used the affiliation of “Independent ” to get elected.
    The author is right about the “segregation”. Until recently, smaller communities have escaped this but the recent actions up in Homer tell me that it is spreading, not by the Republicans but by the “Resistance”.
    They tried to do some of their “resisting” here in Ketchikan, but because the leaders were not local they did not realize that Lisa Murkowski graduated from High School here and is well thought if by long-time residents. So their “resistance” has not been too well received here.
    I am not a Republican nor Democrat, and what I see happening in the lower 48 concerns me that we are headed for a civil war or revolution. I hope we escape this in Alaska.

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