Dankworth much more than a stereotype

December 27, 2008 

Ed Dankworth, who died Dec. 6 at 80, made news in Alaska for half a century as a police officer, legislator, lobbyist and entrepreneur. In every incarnation, he rose to heights he wouldn't have imagined when he was just a Texas boy who dreamt of starring in cowboy movies: commander of the Alaska State Toopers, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, the state's most influential lobbyist, businessman successful in Alaska tourism.

Ed was a polarizing figure, especially in the Legislature and as a lobbyist. He was the brains of Senate Finance early in the '80s and later in the decade was a lobbyist for Veco's Bill Allen, who is now awaiting sentencing for corrupting lawmakers.

Most Democrats dismissed him as Satan's servant in Juneau, the oil companies' emissary to the Republicans. They believed -- usually correctly -- that if they attempted to increase oil taxes Ed would block them, using campaign contributions and well-turned arguments delivered in an oil-friendly Texas drawl.

I shared this view for most of my professional life. Only after Ed abandoned his lobbying career and I stepped down as editorial page editor and, at his urging, spent time with him did I realize there was far more to him.

BALLINGER, TEXAS

Milton Edward Dankworth and his twin sister Mary Eloise were born April 9, 1928, in Ballinger, Texas, northeast of San Angelo. His parents, James and Sadie Dankworth, owned a grocery. A few Texans still call him Milton, but he was strictly Ed in Alaska.

Ed left Ballinger for the Army in 1946 shortly after his 18th birthday. The Army was his way out of town -- not that he had a high opinion of the service.

"The military takes away your identity," he said. "Everybody looks alike. And I have some kind of phobia about that kind of thing."

During basic training at Fort Bliss, Ed and a friend joined the 82nd Airborne. Ed felt had by the airborne recruiter. "Mike, do you know how much lying it takes to convince young men jumping out of an airplane is a good idea?"

Ed, a tall, rangy kid who looked a soldier, must have made a good impression. At Fort Bliss, other recruiters approached him about becoming a career officer. "I wasn't interested," Ed said.

TO HOLLYWOOD

After military service, junior college and brief jobs, Ed made his way to Hollywood, where he hoped to pursue a movie career.

His attraction to acting is telling because in many ways he became a skillful actor as a police officer, legislator and lobbyist. Whatever qualifications Ed had for performing in Westerns -- looks, ability, background -- he soon discovered what it meant to be a country boy in Tinseltown.

"There were these storefronts with pictures (photos) of movie stars in the window there in Hollywood. And if you walked in, the guy running the place would tell you he'd make you a star if you paid him."

"So you gave him your money and he took your picture and promised to show it around, get you work like those people in the window. Just come back in a few days and you'll have it made. When you came back, the storefront was gone, the guy was gone and your money was gone."

A flop in pictures, broke and jobless, Ed prepared to return to Texas in 1951. He was in a bank thinking about telegraphing home for help when a scene unfolded that changed his life.

A QUARTER ON THE FLOOR

An old man dropped a large paper bag full of coins and the bag shattered, sending coins all over the floor, including silver dollars. The old man was hysterical and began bouncing around the room corralling his coins.

A quarter rolled up to one of Ed's cowboy boots, and Ed moved his foot to cover it. But as he watched the old man fume and fumble, his conscience bothered him, so he pitched in helping the man gather his coins.

When the job was over, the old man thanked him and said, "Come with me."

The old man, Alaska businessman W.D. Gross, owned numerous movie theaters in the territory. Gross had been in movies since gold rush days when he won the sobriquet "the boy projectionist." He asked Ed to work for him in Juneau, a job Ed described as "keeping an eye on the theater."

A TEXAN IN ALASKA

Territorial Alaska charmed Ed because it was so totally outside his previous experience. He didn't seem to mind -- at least in retrospect -- that when he walked into a bar in Juneau, guys would try to pick fights with him on the premise that he was a Texan, and a Texan deserves a poke in the nose.

Ed spent plenty of time walking into bars in the '50s -- as a member of the territorial highway patrol, sometimes in Anchorage, sometimes in Fairbanks.

"Fairbanks taught me an effective police officer is a polite police officer," he recalled. In the mid-'50s, south Fairbanks, home to a string of clubs catering to servicemen and construction workers, sprawled outside the city limits. Ed described entering places like the Squadron Club without backup and the nearest fellow highway patrolman 50 miles away.

"Some GI would be drunk, waving a gun in front of other guys who were drunk too, and you would have to explain to him, 'Son, it would be a real bad idea to shoot anyone, so just hand me that gun and go sit with your friends.' "

Clearly this took not only courage but the composure of an actor -- Ed realized you didn't just wear the police officer's uniform, you played the part.

Ed mixed ambition and ability, rising to the head of the state troopers, earning the title colonel in 1971. He was closely involved in the modernization of Alaska police work. According to former colleague Art English, he was the first trooper certified to administer polygraphs.

BREAKING INTO POLITICS

Dankworth retired in 1975 and ran successfully for the state House in 1976 as a conservative reformer.

"A bunch of hippies were running the Legislature, and they were out of control," Ed said.

Joe McKinnon, a Democrat who chaired the Commerce Committee, remembers Ed as "a pretty typical Republican back-bencher, but when he got to the Senate, whoa, he was something else!"

Ed caught a break when Democrat John Rader, one of the Senate's most respected members, concluded his health would not allow him to seek re-election in 1978. It's unlikely Ed would have beaten a seasoned incumbent like Rader, but he was more than a match for neophyte Mike McHenry.

Ed's Senate tenure coincided with Gov. Jay Hammond's second term, 1978-1982. The two men had little in common and had been shaped by different Alaskas -- Jay by the Bush, Ed by the rough-and-tumble cities. Both were outstanding communicators -- Jay, the spellbinder who appealed to a mass audience, Ed, one-to-one with individual legislators.

Alaska was awash in oil money after completion of the trans-Alaska pipeline, and nobody had more access to that money than the co-chairman of Senate Finance, Ed Dankworth. He was a champion of economic development and, more specifically, an advocate for Anchorage business interests. Ed shared the Finance gavel with Don Bennett of Fairbanks, a move essential to organizing the Senate, but clearly Ed was the more able man.

Despite his largesse, Ed fell victim to Senate intrigue and, after a spell in the minority, departed after just one Senate term, in 1982.

DAMAGED REPUTATION

Ed's reputation was damaged by a business deal gone wrong. He and a partner tried to buy a surplus pipeline camp and then sell it to the state -- which led to an investigation and then his indictment for conflict of interest in 1982.

In 1984, the state Supreme Court ruled that legislative immunity protected Ed. Many Alaskans -- especially Democrats -- felt he had escaped justice via a technicality.

Gov. Jay Hammond disagreed. "I honestly can't point or figure out what exactly he did that was improper," Hammond said in July 1982.

By 1984, Ed had become the lobbyist for oil-field service giant Veco and its ambitious chieftain, CEO Bill Allen. For the next five years, Ed represented Veco -- and, through Veco, the oil companies.

"Allen wanted me to lobby in Juneau for one reason. So that if the oil companies had any trouble in Juneau, he could tell them 'No problem; I will call down there and take care of things.' "

When Democrats fought to raise oil taxes, Ed fought back. It's true he used campaign contributions, but it's also true he was a master of communicating his views to lawmakers, so much so that he became known as the 21st senator.

'EASY MONEY'

As he approached 60, Ed was a big, bulky man who radiated an aura of relaxed power. His Texas twang, casual attire and friendly demeanor made him seem like the proverbial good ole boy, as did his habit of calling men whose names he couldn't remember (including me at the time) "Easy Money."

With legislators, he was clear, patient, deliberate, focusing on the matter at hand, a listener as well as a talker -- even when lawmakers called late in the evening with sob stories about their love lives.

Journalist Gregg Erickson remembers one occasion on which Ed had to employ special communication skills. On a Juneau flight, a legislator -- drunk -- started a commotion in the cabin. The flight attendants were unnerved.

Ed rose from his seat, walked down the isle to the legislator, picked him up in a bear hug and said, "You need a nap." Then he put the lawmaker down, brushed the man's jacket with a big hand and straightened his tie in the manner of a mother grooming a child. Incident over.

A BRIBERY OFFER?

In 1988, Ed had a run-in with Sen. Mike Szymanski that provoked headlines. Szymanski, a Democrat, said that during a walk along a Juneau boat harbor Ed suggested that a yacht worth three-quarters of a million dollars could be his if he became a friend to the oil industry. Syzmanski took this suggestion as a bribe -- Ed bidding for his vote on pending oil-tax legislation.

Ed dismissed Szymanski as a guy whose "elevator doesn't go all the way to the top. ..." No charges were filed. To this day, Szymanski insists Ed was offering him the boat for a vote.

During early 1989, Ed broke off his relationship with Bill Allen. Allen wanted Ed to give up telecommunications client GCI and take on rival ACS as a favor to a friend of his.

Ed refused. "I said, 'Bill, it's time to cut the rope,' " Ed remembered. After that, Ed focused on his remaining clients and his tourism interests.

BILL ALLEN'S MISTAKE

Bill Allen made a mistake becoming his own lobbyist, Ed believed. He lacked finesse and had no discipline.

"He was just an old welder with no education," Ed said. Bill thought influencing lawmakers was easy -- just shower them with campaign contributions and you own them. He would talk openly about his tactics, pointing to individual lawmakers at fundraisers and asking, "Didn't we buy him?"

This exasperated Ed. "I told him we don't say that about politicians -- that's not what were doing. Bill, you can't talk that way. We don't do that. Bill, stop." Ed was happiest when Bill stayed in Anchorage and left lobbying to the professional who, Ed blandly maintained, found legislators he agreed with and contributed to their campaigns in the hope they could work together in Juneau.

ONE OF A KIND

I'm not sure why Ed sought me, but for 10 years we met now and then over lunch. At first, I thought he wanted a contact at the paper. Later, I wondered if he simply liked talking with someone familiar with Alaska's old days -- his youth.

Ed Dankworth was unlike any man I ever met. He was both a stereotype and unique. Yes, he was a good ole boy, his voice and cowboy boots emphasizing the point. In Texas, where he retired, he was known as "Bubba," Daily News reporter Richard Mauer discovered.

But he also was an Alaskan who, as trooper, legislator, lobbyist and businessman, shaped the state during its transition from struggling territory to oil giant.

Ed Dankworth was one of a kind, and that's the way I will remember him.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.

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