When Alaska's first state Legislature convened on Jan. 26, 1959, there was one independent in the two chambers: a fellow from Naknek by the name of Jay S. Hammond. The last independent to serve in the Legislature was Edward Willis of Eagle River, elected 18 years ago.
Ron Devon, 56, a former mall retailer, is hoping to add his name to that short list.
Devon is running an uphill battle in state Senate District N against a one-term incumbent, Republican Cathy Giessel, a nurse practitioner, required to run after only two years instead of the usual four-year Senate term because of redistricting. The sprawling new district stretches from the Upper Hillside to Turnagain Arm, then south to Seward and Nikiski.
If Devon has made inroads against Giessel -- and at least one major conservative Giessel supporter, Alaska Family Council president Jim Minnery, says the race has become "quite competitive" -- the outcome could play a major role in the make-up of the Senate. With the House likely to remain controlled by Republicans after the election, what happens in the Senate will determine the future of oil taxes and contentious social issues.
That's because the bipartisan coalition that has run the Senate for four years, blocking Gov. Sean Parnell's oil-tax cuts and steering clear of divisive issues like school choice and abortion restrictions, is in jeopardy. Two Republican members were knocked off in the primary by conservatives and redistricting may doom several Democrats.
Devon, a one-time Republican, said he would join a bipartisan caucus. In a recent interview, he said he would be most effective working with members of both parties. His ideas on oil taxes are in line with those of last session's coalition -- no cuts without matching increases in oil production. He has gotten no contributions from the oil industry, as of his last report, and at least $15,000 from labor unions and members, who have opposed Parnell's cuts.
Giessel refused to join with Democrats in the last Legislative session and supported Parnell's tax plan. Oil interests have contributed nearly $10,000 to her campaign as of her last report.
Devon, 56, says he dropped out of the Republican Party years ago and has no interest returning. He sees himself as a throwback to the Republicanism of the Eisenhower years -- he was born when Ike was winning his second term in 1956. He described that philosophy as blending fiscal conservatism with cooperation with those who don't share all your views. Along he way he's rejected efforts by his wife, the liberal blogger Jeanne Devon of The Mudflats, to persuade him join the Democratic Party.
"I grew up in a Republican household and my relatives are still fairly Republican, but I've been unaffiliated for probably 25 years at least," Devon said in a recent interview. "My dad subscribed to a lot of the Eisenhower Republican notions. If he was alive today and looking at the Republican Party platform, I can guarantee that the hair on the back of his neck would stand up. It's changed drastically since I was a kid."
Devon believes he has a chance at winning. A poll he commissioned, taken in September, showed Giessel was vulnerable if voters in the district understood the depth of her social and political conservatism and believed him to be more moderate -- but he would have to get his message out.
He has that opportunity. As of the last reporting period, 30 days before the Nov. 6 election, he had raised $70,000 to her $80,000. Both contributed large personal sums to their campaigns -- Devon $29,000, Giessel $12,400. State law allows them to recover no more than $10,000 if their fundraising exceeds expenses.
Devon's first commercial fits squarely on the theme of bipartisanship. It shows him around the kitchen table with two emeritus state leaders -- Democrat Vic Fischer and Republican Arliss Sturgulewski -- extolling the virtues of political cooperation and criticizing Giessel as a tool of special interests.
Devon talked about his campaign in two interviews in Anchorage coffee bars over the past two weeks. Giessel initially agreed to an interview at her South Anchorage kitchen table, then changed her mind and suggested that questions be sent to her by email. She then declined to answer those, pointing instead to her candidate web page and other published sources.
Among the questions she wouldn't answer: what she meant when she said "yes" at an Anchorage tea party forum to a question of whether she was in favor of "privatizing" public education in Alaska. Another: What is the medical necessity for requiring a woman to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion, a mandate she and the three other members of the Senate minority sponsored in the last Legislature as Senate Bill 191. (One Democrat also sponsored the bill, which died in committee.)
Joe Arness, a Kenai real estate agent who lost to Giessel in the primary, said Giessel's conservatism helped her win among Republicans but could work against her in the general election.
"She does a pretty good job of not tipping that hand, but I think she's probably more conservative than the run-of-the-mill folks," Arness said.
Judy Salo, who won a term in the Senate from Kenai running as an "Independent Democrat" in 1992, said she thought an independent's chances in the district might be even better now.
"People are so weary of the partisan divide," she said.
Devon points out that most residents in the district are registered as nonpartisan or unaffiliated, though those aren't necessarily the ones that regularly vote. Among those registered to a political party, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district by more than 2 to 1.
Growing up in Anderson
Devon grew up in Anderson, a small community on the Parks Highway south of Fairbanks. His father helped build the power plant for the nearby Clear Air Force Station and served as the first mayor of Anderson. Devon met Jeanne when both were selling advertising for an Anchorage radio station.
Among the questions he polled was whether voters would be turned off by someone married to "a liberal blogger." Some would, he said, but those would not be inclined to vote for him anyway.
"Most people don't seem to really care a whole lot," he said.
On the key issues, Devon said he would favor an oil-tax cut, but only if it was tied to more production.
"I'm a business guy, and to give away $2 billion a year with no guarantee we're going to get anything back absolutely makes no business sense," he said.
Devon said he wouldn't vote to restrict abortion rights. "I believe that women deserve their right to privacy," he said. "When it comes to women's rights to choose, I believe it's between a woman, her doctor, her family and her faith, and the government has no place in that decision."
He said he would probably support the Susitna-Watana hydroelectric project but would oppose the Pebble mine project because of the risk to Bristol Bay salmon.
Of all the gas line projects under consideration, he would only back a large-diameter line from the North Slope to tidewater -- and that Nikiski, which already has an export plant to turn natural gas to liquid, should be at least one destination. He would support the state owning an interest in the line, including building it outright as a valuable piece of infrastructure.
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.