Two term Governor of Alaska and President Nixon’s first Secretary of the Interior, Walter Hickel died last evening. The Anchorage Daily News’ story is here” http://www.adn.com/2010/05/07/1268751/hickel-dead-at-age-90.html If you’ve ever seen pictures of the Anchorage skyline, the golden brown building near the Cook Inlet waterfront is his most visible monument, the Captain Cook hotel, which he built before the rubble was even cleaned up from the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in North America.
In 1959, Alaska was so firmly Democrat that it was only admitted to statehood simultaneously (almost) with Hawaii, then just as firmly Republican. Walter Hickel was one of those archetypal Alaskans who got off the ship in Valdez with thirty-seven cents in his pocket and became a multi-millionaire. In 1966, he became Alaska’s first Republican governor and the first Republican to hold statewide office. In 1968, President Nixon appointed Governor Hickel Secretary of the Interior, but later Nixon fired Hickel over policy differences on Vietnam and other matters. Hickel came back to Alaska and continued to be a “mover an shaker” in Alaska business and politics and narrowly lost a bitterly contested Primary to Alaska’s only, so far, two term Republican governor, Jay Hammond. In 1990, the open Republican Primary nominated State Senator Arliss Sturgeluski for Governor. Alaska Republicans of the day were hardly conservative, including Hickel, but Sturgelewski was an outright liberal, in many ways more liberal than the Democrat nominee, Anchorage mayor Tony Knowles. Having either of them as Governor of Alaska was more than Hickel could bear. He arranged to have himself made the nominee of the Alaska Independence Party and in a largely self-financed campaign was elected Governor a second time.
I was still a registered Democrat but had been largely apolitical since I’d left organized labor in late 1980. When I had been in private business, I had made enough campaign contributions to make sure my calls would be returned, but they went to both parties and to the extent that I was involved in politics at all it was purely the poltics of self-interest. The oil-price crash and a divorce had sent me into the clutches of government work in the late ’80s. By the ’90 election season, I was working representing the State in labor negotiations, arbitrations, and labor board hearings a couple of levels below an appointee. Again my only politics was that of self-interest and I had actually given some money to Knowles in the Democrat primary but only because his opponent had promised the AFL-CIO my head on a platter upon his election. Mind you, I was a merit system employee, not an appointee, but Democrats can do things like that.
We were involved in very controversial concessionary bargaining with all the State’s unions. The unions were themselves in turmoil because in ’88, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) had decertified the independent association that had represented the bulk of the State’s gray and white collar employees since bargaining began in ’72. Putting that block of employees in the AFL-CIO fundamentally changed both union politics and Democrat politics in Alaska. Even though we had a Democrat Governor, Steve Cowper, the State had not been “union-friendly” because we simply didn’t have the money. By the election season, we were headed to interest arbitration with the unions that had access to it and it was evident that the unions were going to get some fairly substantial awards from arbitrators. In the political climate of the times, that meant we were going to “lose” those arbitrations and I wanted some company in that loss.
The Anchorage business community had been very, very vocal in their opposition to State spending and specifically in their opposition to any increases, they wanted decreases, in wages and benefits for State employees. Two civic groups in Anchorage were most vocal, Common Sense for Alaska and former Governor Hickel’s group, Commonwealth North. My appointee-level boss had checked out and his boss was clueless, so we were essentially unsupervised. My direct supervisor and I did what ‘crats do; we made sure there was somebody to blame besides us, so we contacted those groups and told them that we were going to give them their big chance to convince an arbitrator of their position. Technically, we called them as State witnesses in the arbitration though we muttered some disclaimers about how the law required the arbitrator to consider the public’s interest and we were allowing them to testify as public members. Needless to say, the unions went nuts and their screaming phone calls awakened our sleeping appointee boss who went nuts. Though he threatened, we weren’t really worried about getting fired; you don’t fire high-level employees in the election season because they’re safer inside the tent peeing out that outside the tent peeing in. In any event, bringing Commonwealth North into those arbitrations was how I got to know Governor Hickel and some of his people.
Governor Hickel was introduced at the inauguration by Juneau’s former Senator, Bill Ray, a Democrat. Sen. Ray ended the introduction by referring to JFK’s inaugural lines about the torch having been passed to a new generation and concluded with, “They’re back!” As we were walking back to the State Office Building, aptly called the SOB in Juneau, a Democrat appointee acquaintance of mine remarked, “This is going to be like having to ask your parents for the car keys again.” That remark says a lot about Democrat attitudes towards Republican officeholders and the fact that both she and her appointee husband kept their jobs for the whole administration says a lot about Republican officeholders too.
This Administration was where most of my beliefs about government and governing were formed. Governor Hickel was in many ways a visionary and had a deep love for the State, but that doesn’t help you find the light switches and rest rooms. Almost all of his appointees were from private business and fancied themselves self-made men, mostly, and Captains of Industry who could make things move and shake. Well, the largest private business in Alaska would only be the fourth or fifth largest department of State government, and these guys were clueless! They were endlessly ridiculed, leaked, thwarted, and sabotaged by the holdover Democrats they left in place. Watching the misery that administration endured at the hands of holdovers and congenital ‘crats is what convinced me that any Republican MUST fire every appointee in a government to have any chance of governing effectively.
But they knew me and my, then, supervisor and while we were ‘crats and Democrats, they kinda, sorta trusted us. They ran off our appointee boss, though typical Democrat, he had a hidey-hole for himself in the classified service and stayed around for years longer. (And, to be honest, I had one too when I was an appointee, but I didn’t use it; I’d had enough!) And we found ourselves effectively in charge of a sovereign government’s relations with its employees and with the government’s impact on the State’s wage economy. We had a canvas to paint on and paint we did, and with broad strokes and bright colors! We learned quickly that the Governor had no taste for criticism or bad press, so we learned to take the strategic offensive but remain on the tactical defensive. In other words, we would position the government in a place where we knew the unions couldn’t stand for us to be, but we would just sit there and they always obliged us by attacking. That way we could tell our shaky principals that we were just defending them. That is the only way you’ll ever get a Republican government to do anything so long as we don’t have a Republican political class like the Democrats do. Those “hail fellow, well met” types from the Chamber and the Rotary just cannot stand the criticism and controversy, so they have to have functionaries below them to do the dirty work.
We poked and prodded and explored the contours and limits of our bargaining law in arbitration, before the labor board, and in court. We had a zillion grievances, unfair labor practice complaints, and lawsuits filed against us and won one Helluva lot more of them than we lost. The AFSCME unit preferred politics to bargaining and we obliged them by keeping them without a contract for three years of the term and refusing to enforce their compulsory dues provision. They were racked and stacked for decertification, but Republican fratricide elected the Democrat in ’94, and their made man, Knowles, saved them. The senior people were on a very public “hit list” by the ’94 election and for years I had tapes and affadavits of AFSCME agents pounding their chests about the pool they had on how many seconds we’d be employed after “their” governor took office. Those would have been useful if the Democrats had had the guts to fire us.
Governor Hickel gave up on trying to get the government to do what he wanted and I think he and his wife were bitterly disappointed by the press criticism he got. Well before the end of the term he announced that he would not seek re-election and, typically, the remainder of the term became a free-for-all especially for the unions who were slithering around threatening and promising. We didn’t take it too seriously because we didn’t believe it was possible for a liberal Democrat to get elected in Alaska. We didn’t count on Hickel’s Lt. Governor deciding that the Republican nominee was not a pure enough conservative to suit him and reprising Hickel’s run as the AIP candidate. He didn’t have Hickel’s money and organization, so he didn’t win, but he elected Tony Knowles. My new boss walked in and bragged about how he had campaigned with the unions for the job and one of his campaign promises was to fire us all. They never got it together to fire us, but you can only do things you hate for people you hate for so long, so the senior staff all got our affairs in order and we were gone by the second year.
The then-13 unions had dozens of agents, millions of dollars in dues income, and thousands of members. The State never had more than four or five people actually representing it in dealing with them during the Hickel years. Those people went on to head the Executive Branch’s personnel and labor relations functions, the Court System’s personnel and labor relations functions, the University of Alaska’s personnel and labor relations function, and one, the only one of the senior staff not now retired, still heads the Juneau city government’s personnel and labor relations functions. One of the junior people at that time is now the personnel and labor relations head for a large utility and another is just below the appointee level for the State of Nevada. Not bad for a bunch of people whose careers the Democrats sold to the unions. Along the way I had carried enough water for the Republicans that when I told the Democrats to take this job and shove it in ’96, the Republican controlled Legislature thought enough of me to throw me enough bones to keep me alive for a few years until even the Democrats couldn’t stand their union friends anymore and hired me back to clean up the mess. Oh, and somewhere along the way, I became a Republican.