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For Alaska's Senate candidates, campaign is a 'fight'

Nathaniel Herz
John Hendrickson passed out pins featuring Wally Hickel in his boxing days at a memorial for the former governor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in west Anchorage on May 17, 2010. Hickel is just one of a long line of Alaska politicians who have been characterized as "fighters" -- including the four leading candidates in this year's U.S. Senate race. ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Observers of Alaska's ongoing U.S. Senate race could be forgiven for thinking that Dan Sullivan, one of three major Republican candidates in the party's Aug. 19 primary, wants to serve out his six-year term in a boxing ring with Democrats and federal bureaucrats rather than in the halls of Congress.

In Sullivan's campaign kickoff speech last October, he branded himself as the “fighter” who could beat the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich. At a debate last week in Eagle River, Sullivan, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves who's trained in martial arts, stood on a stage and attacked Begich as a lapdog for President Barack Obama. Balling his hand into a fist, he described how he'd spent 4 1/2 years “in the arena” working for the state to combat federal overreach.

“We need a fighter in Washington, D.C. We don’t have that,” Sullivan said. “We have a rubber stamp.”

In a state with a proud tradition of pugilistic politicians -- one of Alaska’s first senators, Ernest Gruening, titled his autobiography “Many Battles,” and former Gov. Wally Hickel was a boxing champion in his native Kansas -- Sullivan has defined himself as the Senate campaign’s fighter-in-chief.

But Begich isn’t ceding that title easily, nor are the two other major Republican candidates.

“My mentor was Wally Hickel,” said Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who’s running against Sullivan and Joe Miller in the Aug. 19 GOP primary. “I’ll put my fighting record up against anybody’s -- including Mark Begich.”

All four U.S. Senate candidates have employed the fighter metaphor, though to varying degrees.

But Begich and Sullivan are the two most aggressive.

Since October, Begich’s official office has distributed 17 press releases with “fight” or “fights” in the subject line, and he ranks near the top among his Senate colleagues in his use of the words, according to an informal tally of press releases kept by The New York Times, which provided it to Alaska Dispatch News.

“Begich fights to shut down pirate fishing,” reads one statement from June. “Begich fights to keep fed lands open for Alaskan hunters and anglers,” trumpets another from February. “Begich continues fight against administration attempts to lock up Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” said a statement from November.

Begich frequently frames his fight as one against the federal government, and especially the Obama administration, describing himself to The Washington Post recently as a “thorn” in the president’s posterior.

“Fighting for our state isn’t political for me, it’s personal,” Begich said in an emailed statement from his campaign, which cited his pushes for development of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve and keeping a squadron of fighter jets at a Fairbanks military base.

But Sullivan, in an interview, contrasted his own fighting record with Begich’s.

“Every candidate, Mark Begich included, is talking about how they’re going to fight,” he said. “To me, the best indication of someone’s future actions is not what he’s now saying on the campaign trail because you get a lot of it. I think it’s what they’ve done.”

Sullivan said his Marine Corps training instilled him with a “bias for action,” ticking through his own record of fights from his time as Alaska’s attorney general and Natural Resources commissioner, and from working in President George W. Bush’s White House.

Sullivan’s battle, he said, has been against the Obama administration and the federal government, against terrorists and against people who would harm Alaskans.

Sullivan used stark language to describe his fights, including a “showdown” with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the prosecution of a high-profile murderer Joshua Wade, which Sullivan referred to as an effort to “put that S.O.B. away.”

The campaigns of Miller and Treadwell have not been as aggressive in labeling the candidates as fighters, though both have used the term.

A June press release announcing an ad for Treadwell said the spot emphasized his “40-year record of fighting for Alaska,” called him a “fighter for principle,” suggested he would “fight federal overreach” and closed by saying: “It’s time to send an Alaskan freedom fighter to D.C.”

And at an Anchorage campaign event in late July, Kathleen Miller -- Joe’s wife -- told an audience that she wanted someone to stick up for her interests against outside forces like the United Nations.

“I don’t want my stuff given over to the U.N.,” she said. “I want a fighter.”

There’s a reason why the campaigns keep repeating the phrase: It raises the stakes of the election, said Richard Anderson, an associate professor at the University of California Los Angeles who has studied political science and linguistics.

“To call it a fight makes it sound like a more serious contest than to call it a lottery or a match,” he said in a phone interview. “Which of course makes people likely to vote.”

Republicans’ use of the term, he added, has been attached to the recent rise of the tea party, which suggests a revolution and the violence entailed.

“For Republicans to call themselves fighters kind of espouses this notion of ‘we’re the underdogs,’ ” Anderson said. “And the Democrats have to fight back so everybody ends up calling themselves fighters.”

Alaska politicians’ stances against Outside forces and the federal government are nothing new, said Steve Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The fighting metaphor, he said, dates back to Gruening, one of Alaska’s first two senators, who previously served as territorial governor. Gruening needed a symbol of Outside oppression to rally the public to support statehood in the 1950s, and he ultimately settled on salmon traps, which Haycox said were used by California- and Washington-controlled canneries to dominate Alaska’s fisheries.

“This is an old story in Alaska,” Haycox said.

But given the state’s historic reliance on federal spending, which makes up about a third of the Alaska economy, Haycox added that a more apt symbol than a fighter would be somebody with “their left hand out with a tin cup, asking for favors, and the right hand held up with a stop sign saying, ‘We don’t want any control from you.’”

At least one Anchorage resident too has had enough of the metaphor. Steve Hunt, a local educator, said he got “fed up” hearing Sullivan’s “fighter” references and wrote a letter to Alaska Dispatch News in which he complained about the pervasive use of the word.

“Governing shouldn’t be playground posturing,” he wrote. “Get back to me when you grow up.”

In a phone interview, Hunt said he thinks politicians are using “militaristic” rhetoric today because the country doesn’t have a common enemy like it did in World War II. He said, however, he’d prefer to see people working together.

“We’ve got to change our attitude about this or we’re going to eat each other alive,” Hunt said.

A local boxing promoter, on the other hand, said the term isn’t far off base.

Jim Patton, who promotes Thursday Night at the Fights at Anchorage’s downtown Egan Civic and Convention Center, said the sport is “much more a chess game than it is physical.”

“My perception of politics is that it’s also a chess game of compromise,” he said. “So I think it probably applies.”

Patton encouraged the Senate candidates to suit up at the Egan Center this fall -- his boxing series starts in September -- and “do some campaigning down there with their gloves.”

Asked how he thought he would fare in a physical contest against his Republican primary opponents, Sullivan said: “I don’t think it would be fair for those guys, put it that way.”

Miller responded with a retort referencing an ongoing dispute over whether Sullivan supported passage of a self-defense law in the state Legislature when he was attorney general.

“If we got in a real fight, I suspect Sullivan would retreat rather than stand his ground,” Miller said in an emailed statement.

Treadwell answered with one word: “Bully.” But he added: “The idea of dueling senators with swords and their canes is over, thank God, and I can take care of myself.”

Republican Senate primary debate Sunday

Alaska Dispatch News and KTVA Channel 11 are co-hosting a debate among the GOP Senate candidates from 7 to 8:30 p.m. today at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Joe Miller, Dan Sullivan and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell will participate in a debate moderated by Joe Vigil, with questions from journalists Dermot Cole, Rhonda McBride and Nathaniel Herz. The debate will be streamed at adn.com and ktva.comand the 7-8 p.m. portion will be televised on KTVA Channel 11.