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More important questions to ask of Begich, Sullivan than time in Alaska

Craig Medred

"And how long have you lived here?"

We've all heard the question. It's the essential Alaska query that goes back at least to Gold Rush days and probably longer. At one time, it had more meaning than it does today. Alaska was a wilder place a century ago.

When you set out on the trail at 50 degrees below zero, you best know what you're doing. See Jack London's "To Build a Fire" published in 1908. It was a fictional story about a freezing Cheechako ("newcomer" for you newbies unfamiliar with the local lingo) who foolishly built a fire under the branches of a tree that dropped snow and snuffed it.

He died.

That sort of thing doesn't happen much anymore. Much of Alaska, or at the least the part of Alaska where most of the state's non-Native population lives, is not all that different from the rest of America.

But that hasn't lessened the parochial focus on "how long have you lived here?"

This year's Republican primary went digging around in this ditch, and given that the primary was won by Dan Sullivan, who some have tried to label a "carpet bagger," it appears clear the general election campaign is headed in that direction, too.

No sooner did Sullivan get the Republican nod than Democrat incumbent Sen. Mark Begich was on the offense, using the words of one of Sullivan's Republican opponents -- Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell -- to paint Sullivan as a Johnny Come Lately to the North.

This could be fertile ground for Begich. Sullivan married a woman who grew up in the Interior, and his in-laws have very good "Alaska" pedigrees. But the reality is that the 49-year-old Cleveland lawyer has spent little of his adult life in the 49th state.

On the issue of longevity, Begich has the edge hands down. The 52-year-old Begich was born in Anchorage when Alaska's largest city wasn't much. The Dimond Boulevard area, now a clutter of stores for blocks around the Dimond Center shopping mall, was a road on the edge of nowhere.

The Seward Highway had been punched through to Resurrection Bay only about a decade earlier. Completion of the George Parks Highway to connect Anchorage and Fairbanks was still nine years in the future. Begich has some roots here.

But attacking Sullivan on the how-long-have-you-been-here issue could be dangerous. A significant portion of the Alaska population arrived not all that long ago.

"Alaska has a higher rate of migration than any state other than the District of Columbia," the state demographer observed a decade ago. "Only 38.1 percent of Alaskans were born in the state."

Not much has changed since then. The problem Begich faces is pointing out his roots without alienating newcomers who quickly grow tired of that "how long have you lived here" nonsense.

I arrived in the Interior in 1973. I was beyond tired of the longevity question by 1982 when I was living in Juneau and working as a reporter there. I've been in Anchorage a lifetime now and still hear it, sometimes from people my daughter's age who think being born in Alaska gives them such special cachet.

She was born here, went Outside for college and then grad school, and eventually came back. She may have been born here, but in years spent here I've got her beat by close to two decades. I'm at that age where I can answer the longevity question from most people by simply saying, "A lot longer than you have."

But the question still irritates me, because it's irrelevant. It's the wrong question.

The right question should be "how long are you staying here." Alaska is today in many ways more a colony than a state because a fair number of the people living here like it that way. They're going to get what they can out of business in Alaska and sail back to the homeland.

Former Gov. Steve Cowper did. Same for Sen. Mike Gravel. They are far from alone. A significant number of my old friends have done likewise. They retire, and they bail. It's an old Alaska story. Let's face it, this state can become almost as easy to hate as it is to love. It doesn't have the worlds ideal climate, and it's politically and socio-economically dysfunctional in various ways.

Whether Sullivan loves it or hates it is hard to tell. You can't see easily into a man's soul. He was more visitor here than resident until he got offered the job as Alaska attorney general in 2009. But he first came north with great intellectual underpinnings.

He was the law clerk for U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Andrew Kleinfeld of Fairbanks from 1997 to 1998, and later for then-Chief Justice Warren Matthews of the Alaska Supreme Court until 1999 before joining the Anchorage office of the law firm Perkins Coie in 2000.

He left the state two years later to take a White House fellowship. He eventually became a director in the International Economics Directorate for the National Security Council and the National Economic Council, served as a Marine Corps adviser to the U.S. Central Command 2004, and was appointed assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs in June 2006 before taking the AG's job.

Sullivan has one hell of a résumé. He's a smart and likable guy, but so is Begich. And both of them know more about Alaska than do most of the people reading this. The issue of which one of them has lived here longest is sort of irrelevant.

The late Sen. Ted Stevens, a man who brought so much pork home to Alaska that he became known as "Uncle Ted," had been in Alaska for only about five years when he first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1962. Sullivan has been here considerably longer already.

Of course, Stevens lost that '62 election and afterward he hung around to win a state House seat in '64. For whatever reason, Stevens got into politics early because he loved Alaska -- he played an integral role in helping achieved Statehood -- and he never stopped loving Alaska.

"Do you love Alaska?" might be a better question for both these candidates than "how long have you lived here?"

But there might been even simpler question that really cuts to the heart of things. It's a question Alaskans should probably be asking politicians of all sorts:

"If you lose, are you going to stay?"

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com