With the Alaska Legislature set to adjourn April 14 and with Juneau having celebrated the 100th birthday of the legislature last month, former state Sen. Vic Fischer has a wish: “I would love to see the kind of bipartisanship that we had during my service in the Legislature in years past. There was a civility and a general feeling of collaboration and cooperation across party lines that we don’t seem to see much anymore.”
Fischer, who was in the territorial Legislature in the 1950s and the state Senate in the 1980s, says what’s happening in the state is a reflection of what’s happening nationally.
Late last year, addressing a Homer audience to talk about his new memoir, “To Russia with Love: An Alaskan’s Journey,” Fischer, 88, urged Alaskans to do their part in helping improve the state’s political climate. First and foremost, he said, is getting out to vote.
“You’ve got to be involved,” he said, reminding listeners to take part in neighborhood, community and local government affairs. “You’ve got to organize and you’ve got to participate in the political process, in the organizational process, in lobbying for specifics.”
Fischer, who lives in Anchorage, has been speaking across the state and elsewhere about his memoir, written with Anchorage-based author Charles Wohlforth. He talked to a Homer audience in November, signed books Feb. 19 in conjunction with a World Trade Center Alaska-Russia event in Anchorage and was featured at several events in Juneau recently. In March, he made a presentation in Seattle.
When Fischer spoke in Homer in November, not only did he talk about his memoir, but he also answered a broad range of questions from the audience gathered in a Kachemak Bay Campus classroom and from a small group of journalists who visited the next morning over coffee with this icon of Alaska politics and history. The Homer audience was particularly interested in Alaska’s constitution, which Fischer, as one of the delegates to the constitutional convention, helped write during the winter of 1955-56. Fischer’s answers to the questions from Homer offer a glimpse of the insights he provides in his book as well as in his presentations.
Q: What should we be doing to make sure Alaska doesn’t become New Jersey?
Fischer: We’re far away from the other states — that’s fortunate. It gets cold as hell here. There’s no big stream of people or industries trying to get to Alaska and change it.
I’m not worried about Alaska becoming like New Jersey. I’m much more worried about outside control turning what is and what may be away from Alaskans running this state. That is a bigger concern to me than endless settlement and extraction.
Q: How do you think we’ve done managing our state?
Fischer: I would say it’s been a roller coaster. I would say it could have been a lot worse.
Q: Take us back to the winter of 1955 in Fairbanks, where you were one of 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention. It started on Nov. 8 and you gave yourselves 90 days. Why a time limit?
Fischer: The Constitutional Convention could have gone on and on forever if we didn’t have a deadline; 90 days was specified based in part on what had been done in other states.
My experience in the Senate was that we have to have deadlines. My first year in the Senate (1981) coincided with the first year of the full blast of money from the pipeline being finished. Those sessions went on month after month. We had no deadline. We had special sessions on and on.
In ’82, I voted for a constitutional amendment to limit the session length. I think 90 days is too short, but 120 is reasonable.
Q: Alaska has had two legislative bodies — House and Senate — from the start. At one time, you favored a unicameral system. What do you think now?
Fischer: At the time of the constitutional convention, we spent hours discussing it, debating it. It didn’t seem significant enough to me at the time to get in a big fight over it. I was in favor of the unicameral when the issue came up in the 1970s. When I served in the Senate in the 1980s, I became convinced that the separation of the Legislature into two branches provided a useful check and balance. I have not changed my mind.
For instance, I am grateful we had a Senate that did not go along with the House that was stampeded to approve the governor’s proposal to reduce oil taxes by about $2 billion a year. It was a pure giveaway without extracting a commitment to produce more oil in Alaska.
Q: What do you see in the next 50 years for Alaska?
Fischer: Based on the last 50 years, I would say Alaska’s future is very hard to predict.
Issues like transportation, technology, the world situation, politics and lots of other factors will affect where things go. The opening of the Arctic creates tremendous opportunities — some that could have very positive effects and some that could have very destructive results.
Q: That’s a pretty sweeping assessment. Is there an issue that we should focus on as a state?
Fischer: The concept of “We the owner state” deserves our attention to make sure that benefits of resource development accrue to the people of Alaska.
Acting as the owner state means being in charge instead of letting outside interests direct what happens in Alaska and where Alaska is going. Part of that is the equitable distribution of benefits and weighing of balanced interests of development and conservation and equity among alternative uses of land and water.
Q: How does the concept of “the owner state” fit in with the defeat of the coastal management initiative back in August?
Fischer: The coastal management vote was essentially where big money was used to spread lies about what the initiative was about. A lie was promoted that the coastal management program would end oil development, mining and other development — large scale and small scale — that it would bring an end to Alaska’s economy. The majority of Alaskans were bamboozled into voting against their own interests.
Q: What would you like to see Alaska accomplish in the next 50 years?
Fischer: I would like to see a lot more concern in the Railbelt — and I extend the Railbelt right through the Kenai Peninsula — for rural, principally Native, Alaska.
I would like to see a far more equitable distribution of state revenues and resource wealth among all the people in Alaska.
We need a formula, almost, for sharing the wealth with people throughout Alaska.
And then not just saying these are government’s resources to utilize and spend, but they belong to all the people of Alaska.
Q: You spent six years in the Alaska Senate, virtually all of that time in the majority party. What accomplishments are you most satisfied with?
Fischer: That was a time when the oil money began to flow in what was for Alaska totally unprecedented amounts. And one could do almost anything.
I was asked to try to find money for a shelter in Anchorage and decided if we were going to get money for Anchorage, we ought to get money for Fairbanks and Dillingham and Nome and Kotzebue and Juneau and whoever else needed a shelter for abused women. We could do all of them, and we did.
I was on the Finance Committee and the Resource Committee. I was chairman of the State Affairs Committee for four years. I was particularly fortunate to be on the Resource Committee and working with the director of state parks, Neil Johannsen, to establish a system of marine parks for Alaska.
Even later when I was in the minority I was able to get into state law a provision for the Board of Fisheries providing for a category of personal use fishery. There had been personal use, but it wasn’t specified as a category that the board had to provide for.
Going back to the 1950s, the high point of my time in the territorial legislature was joining Warren Taylor in sponsoring the repeal of the death penalty in Alaska.
Q: Does your story — from Stalinist Russia to Alaska lawmaker and much more — seem implausible to you? Where does your optimism come from?
Fischer: My values took root from my parents and their hopes and dreams from that era in Russia where the sky was the limit.
I’m a free person, and for me, the dream continues in terms of values. We went through World War II. We’ve seen Africa change from a colonial region to a series of independent countries for better and for worse in terms of dictators and oppression.
Democracy has come and it keeps breaking through autocrats and dictators.
Lori Evans is the editor and publisher of the Homer News, where this interview first appeared. She was a reporter and assistant editor for the Juneau Empire when Vic Fischer served in the Alaska Senate.