In territorial Juneau, statehood fans were a minority

January 5, 2009 

Hugh G. (Jerry) Wade grew up in Juneau, pre-statehood. His father was elected Territorial Treasurer in 1954 and was elected as Alaska’s first secretary of state (the office now known as lieutenant governor) on the Democratic ticket with Gov. Bill Egan. Son Jerry offers this reflection on the campaign for statehood and his father’s role in Alaska’s first year as a state.

With regard to the statehood issue, we Wades had been initially very much in the minority in Juneau. The business community, and indeed, most property owners believed that the costs associated with statehood would be prohibitive. In fact, the movement had very little traction in Juneau during the time that I was in high school (1948-1952). It was simply not at the top of anyone’s agenda in Juneau at that time.

I was never aware of any support in Alaska for independence from the United States, or for commonwealth status. Alaskans were united in aspiring to statehood as an ultimate goal. We were, however, in 1952 sharply divided because no one had a plausible plan to pay for the services that the new state government would be required to provide.

Anchorage led statehood drive

It may not have been a concern in Anchorage where business was booming and optimism was rampant. But, in 1952, most Alaskans had never been to Anchorage. In the older “cities” — Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, Valdez and Seward — Anchorage was largely viewed as a wartime boomtown, which would collapse like Haines had when the army pulled out.

It was a comfortable illusion. In fact, the consolidation of economic power and population in Anchorage, which had commenced during the war, had became a permanent reality. It was in Anchorage that the statehood movement bloomed and became a vital force in the political life of the territory.

Ernest Gruening, as territorial governor under FDR and Truman had, until 1949, been lukewarm in his support for the movement. However, after being deposed by President Eisenhower in 1953, he and Bob Atwood quickly became the charismatic leaders of a rising chorus, which sang out in an unambiguous demand for statehood now — as a matter of right.

A key convert to the cause

In the summer of 1953 a U. S. Senate committee, chaired by Sen. Hugh Butler of Nebraska, held a series of hearings in the territory. In Juneau, the testimony was approximately evenly divided, pro and con.

I had just completed my freshman year at Notre Dame and my father and Bob Bartlett arranged for me to be the final witness. As I concluded an emotional spiel, Elton Engstrom Sr., then a territorial senator, made an unscheduled entrance to the chamber.

Being permitted to address the committee, Engstrom made a powerful speech by which he became the most prominent Juneau Republican to publicly advocate immediate statehood. Although ignored by historians, I have always believed it was a pivotal moment for the movement in Juneau. Elton was a powerful voice in the fishing industry, whose leaders in Washington state and spokesmen in Washington, D.C., were central to the organized opposition to statehood.

Partisan obstacles

Nevertheless, prospects for statehood still seemed remote. President Eisenhower and most Republicans in Congress were resolutely opposed to admitting a new state, which was perceived to be overwhelmingly Democratic. There was also rather resolute opposition within the Democratic caucus. Many Texans did not relish the prospect of becoming the second largest state, and both Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson were thought to reflect that concern.

Mike Gravel as Paul Revere

All this changed with startling speed. Alaskans held their constitutional convention in 1955. The constitution and a referendum for immediate statehood passed overwhelmingly in 1956. We sent a Tennessee Plan delegation to Congress in 1957. Mike Gravel, sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce and dressed as Paul Revere, rode up the Capitol steps with a petition. The concept of balancing the political impact by admitting Alaska and Hawaii quieted Republican concerns. Oil was discovered at Swanson River.

The importance of that discovery cannot be exaggerated. The prospect of royalties and production taxes quieted heretofore legitimate concern about the affordability of statehood. The prospect of transferring millions of acres of potentially oil rich land from federal to state, and ultimately private ownership, whetted a lot of appetites. The oil industry, perhaps prophetically understanding the vulnerability of a new state government, joined the statehood movement. Its legislative allies, Rayburn and Johnson, soon followed suit.

Political jockeying

When President Eisenhower appointed Mike Stepovich to replace Frank Heinzelman as territorial governor, it was widely assumed that the Republicans were grooming the popular and charismatic Stepovich to challenge Ernest Gruening for one of the two new seats in the U.S. Senate. That assumption was bolstered when Mike was featured on the cover of Time Magazine.

Mike, Matilda, and their thirteen kids were from Fairbanks, but they were wildly popular in Juneau, where Mike played third base or shortstop in the local baseball league. They revitalized the governor’s mansion; and swelled attendance at the Catholic Cathedral.

Ernest Gruening was widely believed to be vulnerable, because, while undeniably brilliant, and commanding a devoted following, he also had what today’s talking heads describe as “high negatives.”

No one was neutral about the Gruenings, whom many perceived to be aristocratic eastern carpetbaggers, rather than true Alaskans. I know that to have been unfair. I have fond memories of Dorothy Gruening stopping the governor’s 1941 Buick on the muddy Glacier Highway to give me and my rain-soaked buddies a lift as we hitchhiked home from trout fishing at Salmon Creek. However, image sometimes trumps reality.

Feuding in D.C.

When I arrived home for summer vacation in late May 1958, Juneau, and especially the Wade household was awash in political speculation. Our Tennessee Plan delegation — Bill Egan, Ernest Gruening and Ralph Rivers — had been feuding among themselves, virtually from the time they arrived in Washington. Their initial welcome by Bob Bartlett and his staff had worn thin. After a skirmish between Egan and Gruening concerning the location and furnishing of their offices and a round of introductions and welcoming speeches in early 1957, the ersatz senators and congressman found themselves with no formal duties, no authority, no constituents and a great deal of time on their hands.

The race for governor

Shortly after Eisenhower signed the Statehood Act on July 7, 1958, Congress adjourned, and the primary election was scheduled for Aug. 26. Dad announced that he was running for governor. He and Bob Bartlett had fantasized about a time when he held that position and Bob was the senior senator. Both of them felt that only then would Alaska reach its full potential.

Both Dad and Bartlett assumed that Bill Egan would run against Gruening for Senate Term B. When the Egans finished their 10-day drive back to Valdez from Washington, D.C., Egan announced that he was filing for governor. Dad withdrew from the race and filed for the office of secretary of state.

Egan was nominated by a comfortable majority and Dad was nominated to be his running mate in a close contest with Dick Greuel. The Democratic ticket of Egan and Wade was elected overwhelmingly in the general election which, because of the compressed schedule, did not take place until Nov. 25, 1958.

Gov. Egan falls ill

In September, I had returned to Washington for my final year in law school, and thus missed the general election, the inauguration and a dramatic turn of events. Immediately after being sworn in, Gov. Egan was hospitalized and rushed to Seattle for surgery and a long rehabilitation. Thus, Dad became acting governor. He gave the first State of the State address to the Legislature and served in that capacity throughout the Legislature’s initial session.

By the time I returned to Juneau with my law degree in June, Gov. Egan had reassumed his duties. It was an exciting time to be a newly minted lawyer, as the new court system was being organized and a flood of young lawyers were being recruited to clerk for the new judges and otherwise serve in the new state government.

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