Reality strikes: Alaska has always been left-leaning

Historic photo of Alaskans marching under the banner of Alaska for Alaskans.
Marching under the banner “Alaska for Alaskans,” a rival AFL sponsored union tried unsuccessfully to capture the cannery contracts in 1939. (University of Washington photo.)


Art Chance

A recent commenter at Must Read Alaska implored readers to resist the  “invasion of the Marxists” in Alaska.

That is a fundamental misapprehension of Alaska history. The Marxists have been here all along. In reality, conservatives and/or Republicans are the invaders.

Alaska was such a solidly Democrat territory that it was only allowed into the union concurrently with solidly Republican Hawaii so that the party balance in the U.S. Senate could be maintained.

Alaska never fell into the International Workers of the World-Wobbly orbit or into Harry Bridges’ communist West Coast Longshoremen’s union orbit, but in the Forties and Fifties, Alaska was a solidly Democrat, leaning socialist, and trade unionist body politic.

The nation recoiled from union/Democrat excesses during and just after World War II, culminating in the Taft-Hartley Amendments to the National Labor Relations Act in 1948.

The Republicans retook Congress in 1948 with the theme of, “Had Enough Yet?”

The Republican Congress passed Taft-Hartley over five Harry Truman vetoes, and union power began its decline. Even today, after a couple of drinks, talk of Taft-Hartley will bring a tear to an old trade-unionist’s eye.

But Alaska was a federal territory and right-to-work was not a threat here. In fact, Delegate Ralph Robertson of Juneau refused to sign the Alaska Constitution in large measure over the Convention’s refusal to include right-to-work language in the proposed Constitution.

The massive Cold War federal projects were all completed with union workers being paid imaginary Davis-Bacon wages. One of Robertson’s major issues was that the federal projects were being done by Outside contractors employing Outside unions that wouldn’t even allow Alaska workers to join.

At Statehood, Democrat power was based on the liquor industry’s money, Native votes, and Big Labor’s organizational skills. The Democrats’ mantra was “Liquor, Labor, and Natives.”

Republicans were all but irrelevant.

There was a bit of a conservative/Republican voice; Walter Hickel was a Republican succeeding Bill Egan in 1966, but a Republican in 1966 was hardly a conservative and to the end of his days and even in his latter-day revival in the 1990s, Hickel was hardly a conservative except on social issues.  

Anchorage Times publisher Robert Atwood was pretty close to somebody a modern conservative would recognize as a conservative, but even he was very much a creature of the statist culture of early Alaska.

C. R. Lewis was a powerful voice from what was, for the times, the “far right.” A wealthy businessman, he was thought by some some to be a John Bircher, but he was mostly a “small l” libertarian voice.

That was the political landscape in Alaska when oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, and the State chartered a flight to take the $968 million dollar check the oil companies paid for the leasehold rights to develop Prudhoe Bay to New York. During Bill Egan’s reprise as governor in 1970-7474, the question on many Alaskan’s lips was, “What happened to the $968 million?”

When I came north in 1974, I was your standard long-haired, dope-smoking, FM-radio-listening leftist and was only barely beginning my recovery from the Sixties and college; there were lots of kindred spirits — and many were much farther left than I was.

The Ad Hoc Democratic Coalition, which was the far-left McGovernite wing of the Democratic Party, was challenging for control of the party by 1972 and ultimately bolted the Democrat nominee, incumbent Bill Egan, to endorse the Republican Jay Hammond.

I spent many an evening in fashionable, and some not so fashionable living rooms downtown planning “The Revolution.” In the 1974 election, Hammond won and Democrats, led by the Ad Hoc contingent, controlled the Legislature.

While Hammond was nominally, only nominally, a Republican, his administration was mostly Democrats and many of them allied with the Ad Hoc contingent. The Alaska we live in today was structured by the ensuing two or three Legislatures and the progeny of those leftist appointees are still firmly in command of State government and most of the major towns and cities.

It is all but lost today that the survival of Alaska as a state was anything but certain in the early days.   While much is made of the exuberance of Statehood supporters’ role in Statehood, the reality is that Alaska and Hawaii owe their statehoods to the Soviet Union’s anti-colonial pressures around the World, and the seeming hypocrisy of the United States as it pressured European powers to divest of their colonies while maintaining its own colonies in the form of the Territories that were denied full citizenship.

America’s great fear was that Alaska would be a continuing burden on the federal Treasury and only the Cook Inlet oil discoveries allayed some of that fear. Even with Cook Inlet oil revenue and the lease payment for Prudhoe Bay, Alaska was still a very scruffy place in the Seventies.

When I first drove it in 1974, the Parks Highway was not yet finished and was about an axe handle wide.  The intersection of the Parks and the Glenn Highways was a flat intersection of country roads with a stop sign on the Parks side.  The Glenn Highway became Fifth Avenue and four-lane when approaching Merrill Field.  The New Seward Highway dropped to two lanes southbound at Tudor Road, which was itself a two-lane road.

Back then, the City of Anchorage and the Anchorage Borough were completely separate entities and many houses out in the Borough, what we now call South Anchorage and the Hillside, didn’t have siding on them because that allowed them to be considered unfinished and the taxes were lower on an unfinished house.

The political fight all through the Seventies was over development versus conservation and when the money began to flow over spend it or save it. Wally Hickel and Bob Atwood were the champions of development and spending, Jay Hammond and the Democrats were the champions of saving and conserving.

Establishing the Permanent Fund and the Dividend were the last hurrahs of the save-and-conserve crowd and the 1980 Election was the end of openly liberal Democrats at the statewide level. I still held some positions with organized labor and attended a Democrat “workshop” to contemplate how the once mighty Democratic Party had lost its last statewide office with Sen. Mike Gravel’s defeat by Clark Gruening and Gruening’s subsequent defeat by Republican Frank Murkowski.

The first day of that workshop sounded like a meeting of the Soviet Politburo. We in organized labor were the conservatives among the Democrats, and Democrat conventions had erupted into brawls between conservatives led by organized labor and the Ad Hoc left and far left contingents of the Party.

I sat that evening before the fireplace in the main room of the lodge, sipping scotch and talking politics with a conservative Democrat legislator as “sweet perfume” wafted through the air. The general theme of our conversation was “who the Hell are these people.”  That was my last act in organized labor and as a Democrat, though I stayed registered as one for a while longer. That term turned out to be the legislator’s last term as well.

We’ve had the good fortune of having one or both bodies of the Legislature in Republican control since the early Eighties.  Since Hammond’s second term ended in 1982, we’ve had four terms of nominal Democrat governors and four terms of nominal Republican governors if you include Hickel as a Republican.

None of them had any real signature achievement such as Hammond’s Permanent Fund.  Palin’s signature achievement is a negative one as she rendered the conservative/Republican/libertarian coalition that had governed the state since the early 1980s into warring factions. She also gave the Democrats and organized labor, now led by public employee unions rather than the building trades, a power they haven’t had since Bill Egan was governor.

Not even in the days of the mighty jet-owning pipeline unions would Jess Carr or Duane Carlson have dared to throw down the gauntlet as today’s AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami has done.

As the result of the organization they put together to oppose oil tax reform and Anchorage’s AO-37, the Left, led by the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association, has control of the Governor’s Office, the House, and threatens the Senate.

What we need is a determined opposition from the Republican Party, something we haven’t had since Sarah Palin burst into the china shop.

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 he’s banned from posting on Facebook. Chance coined the phrase “hermaphrodite Administration” to describe a governor who is both a Republican and a Democrat. This was a grave insult to hermaphrodites but he has not apologized.


  1. Since one of the themes of this site is things you “must read,” I’ll offer a few suggestions. It is indicative of just how philosophically and ideologically divided Alaska is that there is no really authoritative book titled: “Alaska History.” That said, there are a lot of very authoritative books titled “State History” that are really only the viewpoint of whomever was in charge at the time.

    I had the good fortune of taking several history classes with UAS Professor Pat Fitzgerald who had developed a very good Alaska History course, a course he taught with assigned readings and the like because there was no one magisterial source.

    So, for those of you with an interest, here is some reading about the formative days of the Alaska we see today:

    The Prize: Yergin, Daniel. This is an authoritative history of the oil industry with a lot of emphasis on the importance of Prudhoe Bay.

    Coming Into the Country: McPhee, John. No matter what you were led to think about McPhee and his pursuit of Sarah Palin, he is a good writer and this is a good look at Pipeline Era Alaska.

    Going to Extremes: McGinnis, Joe. Another look from a somewhat different perspective at Pipeline Era Alaska.

    North to the Future, Cole, Dermot. Yeah, he’s a “Dispatch” writer but it isn’t bad if you understand that he is a congenital Democrat.

    And if you really want to get back into how Alaska came into the Union, the last battle of the Civil War was fought off Kotzebue in the summer of 1865 when the Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah destroyed the US whaling fleet. Shenandoah sailed towards San Francisco with an eye towards shelling the city when she met a British mail packet and learned that she was a ship without a country and was being pursued by the US and British navies as a pirate. She sailed around The Horn and through the Atlantic to Liverpool, where she asked for the US Consul and surrendered her colors to him, the last formal surrender of the Civil War. The US filed charges against Great Britain for violation of her Neutrality Act by providing ships such as CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah to the Confederate States. An international board of arbitration found for the US and awarded, IIRC, $18+ Million in the “Alabama Claims” case to the US for damage to US shipping by British supplied CS ships, $6.8 Million of which was for the damage done to US whaling by CSS Shenandoah. So, in reality, Great Britain paid most of the freight for the US acquisition of Alaska. It’s all there at a library near you.

    • Alaska: a History – by Claus M. Naske is a definitive history of Alaska going back to Russia’s “discovery”. You do kind of have to ignore Naske’s obvious Statehood boosterism. Like so many historians, he can’t take off the blinders to ask what might have been different if Alaska had rejected Statehood and known it had the opportunity to call its own shots instead of having a tiny vote of 3 out of 500 in the national legislature.

      • It’s a history, not a definitive history. I’ve read it, I have it. I stand by my assertion that there is no magisterial history because Alaskans simply cannot agree on what our history was. Even you dispute some of his premises.

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