Alaska playwright Dick Reichman of Cyrano's has penned an imaginative drama of a conversation between former governors Jay Hammond and Wally Hickel. It's not literal history, but rather a work that seeks to capture some of the essence of each man, both of whom were deeply committed to bettering Alaska, but who often enough in real history found themselves adversaries. In no instance was this more the case than in the Republican gubernatorial primary election in 1978.
Hickel, whose gubernatorial term beginning in 1966 had been cut short by his appointment by Richard Nixon as Secretary of the Interior, lost the Republican nomination in 1974 to Hammond, who campaigned on a platform of "responsible development." Hickel challenged Hammond for the nomination again in 1978.
Environment was a major issue in the election. Alaskans had just been treated to Congressional hearings around the country and within the state on the proposed Alaska lands act, the d2 bill for withdrawing about 100 million Alaska acres in new conservation units. The hearings had shown the strength of the environmental movement in America, and even in Alaska where half of the people testifying in Anchorage and Fairbanks supported a strong environmental bill. Hammond had steered an uneven course through the battle, hoping to gain support from both Alaskans jealous of their state's rights and those partial to environmental protection. Hickel was solidly in the states' rights camp, and an apologist for development. Their campaigns were somewhat a reflection of the resources conversation then taking place across the country.
The initial tally of votes for the August primary were very, very close. Hickel had a lead of about 900 votes on election night, but when the absentee and challenged ballots were counted, Hammond won by 37 votes. Hickel asked for the recount to which he was entitled by law. At the official recount on Sept. 18, Hammond won by 98 votes. But then a number of significant irregularities came to light. In Anchorage a temporary election worker responsible for transporting about 2,000 challenged ballots from a computer center to the district election office kept them in his car trunk overnight. In the Native villages of Kwethluk and Kotlik, 141 ballots were discarded after being counted, rather than being mailed to the Division of Elections, as the law required. Then, 15 ballots in the Juneau election office were found to have been misplaced during the recount. Finally, 247 challenged ballots were found to have been placed in an unlocked file cabinet in the Anchorage office. Irregularities indeed!
Hickel and the other candidates on the primary ballot filed suit in Anchorage Superior Court, asking that the results be set aside on the grounds that the election was tainted and its integrity called into question. Judge Ralph Moody agreed, and ordered that a new election be held expeditiously. Time was of the essence, for the general election was scheduled for Nov. 7. The state immediately appealed Moody's decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, asking for an expedited review, which the court granted.
The state conducted an exhaustive investigation, and after reviewing the briefs, the Court held five hours of public hearings which were carried live on statewide television and radio. The drama was palpable. Would the court determine there had been a deliberate attempt to steal an election for governor? Would someone subsequently be indicted? Could the elections office be trusted to conduct an honest and fair election? All these questions were in play.
The Court's decision was somewhat anti-climactic, but importantly, restored trust in the electoral process in Alaska. Publishing their findings on Oct. 20, two weeks before the election, the Court found that none of the irregularities constituted misconduct, that they were all inadvertent and unintentional, and that no ballots had actually been tampered with or otherwise tainted. The general election proceeded as scheduled, Hammond victorious, Hickel running unsuccessfully as a write-in.
Many in the Hickel camp found the finding prejudicial, and went away persuaded the election had been stolen. But before long, the affair was a distant memory for most Alaskans. As Reichman notes, Hammond and Hickel managed to get along in their later years, aided, no doubt, by Hickel's election as governor in 1990.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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