AD Main Menu

Steve Haycox: Alaskans know something about legislative upheaval

Steve Haycox

The shutdown of the federal government brought about because a Republican rump of the U.S. House refused to vote for an appropriations bill to fund government operations, and capitulated only when a default on government debt loomed, has led many to despair of the honorability of our elected officials. For an organized party in a legislature to allow its internal warfare to get into the public arena so vividly is anathema to the party leadership. In this instance, it led to House Speaker John Boehner being labeled by some as the weakest speaker in memory.

In truth, the current civil war in the national Republican Party has been going on since at least the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. A fiscal conservative from Arizona, Goldwater sought to limit federal spending, among other issues, and alienated moderate Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller from New York and William Scranton of Pennsylvania whose northeast, moderate wing had controlled the Party for decades. Goldwater popularized the phrase "a choice, not an echo," to emphasize the moderation of the Rockefeller wing and his own determination to stop increasing federal spending and regulation. But the fight within the party normally has been much less public, the party trying as a rule to present a united front. The current "tea party" critique of government is a breakout of the Republican radical right wing.

Alaska experienced a striking legislative upheaval of its own many years ago, now mostly forgotten. It was at once a civil war and a battle between parties. In mid-session, a speaker of the House lost his speakership when a coalition revolted and replaced him. Gerald McBeath and Thomas Morehouse in their 1994 book "Alaska Politics and Government" claimed it was the only time in American history a legislative body had changed its leadership without changing its membership.

It was 1981. The state was awash in petrodollars; state revenue from taxes on Prudhoe Bay oil production that year would be $4.1 billion. The greatest challenge for the Legislature was how to spend all the money. Gov. Jay Hammond was trying to impose some discipline on the spending spree and having a hard time of it. Democrats had a slim majority in the House, 22 of 40 seats; there were four Libertarians. They had elected Jim Duncan of Juneau as speaker. Sessions were not limited to 90 days then, and the 1981 session had dragged on six months. Duncan was getting nowhere in negotiations with the Senate and the governor. On June 24, during a lull in proceedings, a young, brash legislator from Anchorage, Russ Meekins Jr., took the lectern. Speaking for a new coalition he had helped surreptitiously to organize, Meekins called for an election to oust the speaker and elect himself temporary speaker while the new coalition decided on a new permanent speaker. It was a legislative coup d'etat.

What had upset Meekins and his fellow conspirators was what they viewed as an inequitable distribution of the spoils. They felt they weren't getting enough for their districts. In particular, the Native caucus felt their projects and the needs of Native villages were being ignored. Duncan protested, of course, and so did the leadership in the state Senate, but to no avail. The new coalition held together, and shortly elected Joe L. Hayes, Republican of Anchorage, as the new speaker. When all the dust settled, the Senate, House and governor effectively agreed on a budget that divided the flowing money into roughly equal thirds.

Hayes would serve as speaker for the remainder of the 12th Alaska Legislature, and would be elected to and would serve as speaker for the 13th as well, serving from 1981 to 1985. Juneau voters forgave Duncan, who was subsequently elected to the state Senate. Meekins later charged that another legislator, George Hohman of Bethel, had offered him a bribe, and after Hohman's conviction, Meekins left Alaska for good.

The functioning of legislative bodies is seldom pretty, and public views into their machinations can be dismaying and dispiriting, as we saw in the Bill Allen corruption trials and have just seen in the U.S. House. But for the sake of democracy, we the public must maintain scrutiny.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.


Steve Haycox
comment