Alaska Life

An election win so satisfying, Governor Jay Hammond had to write a song about it

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Former Gov. Jay Hammond (1922-2005) was many things, including a Marine fighter pilot, a father of the Permanent Fund, a self-described “bush rat,” and an inveterate storyteller. He was an environmentalist who, as governor, oversaw the completion of the trans-Alaska pipeline. He was also a wordsmith who took pride in crafting witty verses. So, after an especially hard-fought and satisfying election victory in 1978, nothing felt so right than writing a song about the occasion.

After stints as a state representative and state senator, the Republican Hammond defeated the incumbent, Democrat Bill Egan, for the governor position in 1974. The race was tight, and two recounts lowered his margin of victory to less than 300 votes. Hammond, like many others, believed the presence of third-party candidate Joe Vogler had undercut an otherwise likely Egan win.

Four years later, he overcame his own reluctance to run for reelection and an even more daunting campaign. This time, the real gauntlet was the Republican primary that featured two powerful challengers in once and future Gov. Wally Hickel and future Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink.

Hickel (1919-2010), a wealthy Anchorage entrepreneur, was the greater threat of the two opponents. Hammond and Hickel’s professional relationship began collegially enough but rapidly declined in the late 1960s. A massive stylistic gulf separated the two. Hammond wrote in his first autobiography, “Tales of Alaska’s Bush Rat Governor,” “(Hickel) came across to some as too uptight, humorless and excessively ambitious, while I appeared a disturbingly irreverent clown with insufficient ambition for the job. To the latter charge, I plead guilty.”

The primary election was on Aug. 22, 1978. By noon the following day, Hickel held a 974-vote lead as the counts continued to drip in. The Anchorage Daily News called it “too close to call.” As the Anchorage Times went to press that afternoon, the lead had dropped to 565 votes. Said Hickel, “The people of Alaska are still telling the same story — that’s reflected in this vote.” Hammond declined to concede and said, “I feel good — I think we can still do it. We should do real well in the bush.”

The next day, Hickel’s lead had grown to 901 votes. Hammond’s campaign manager, Eric Sanders, acknowledged, “It doesn’t look good.” Several thousand absentee, challenged and Bush ballots had yet to be counted, but Hammond would have had to significantly outperform Hickel in them to make up the overall difference. Lt. Gov. Lowell Thomas Jr., Alaska’s senior election official, said, “The possibility is there to turn things around, but it doesn’t look very likely.” The Associated Press went so far as to declare Hickel the apparent winner.


Yet, akin to President Harry Truman’s surprising victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948, Hammond pulled off a narrow yet shocking comeback. There have been closer results in Alaska history. The coin flip that decided the 2006 Democratic primary for House District 37 between Bryce Edgmon and Carl Moses obviously cannot be surpassed. Still, it was a massive surprise when the results came in, and Hammond had beaten Hickel by only 37 votes.

Having survived the two 1974 recounts, Hammond was unperturbed about the need for another. He said, “It’s remarkable, no question about it. But it’s still anybody’s ball game. I’ve been through this before, so I’m kind of used to it.” Hickel’s camp was far less calm. The candidate was away on a vacation when the reversal was announced, but his campaign manager Len Hansen declared, “This has to be the worst run election in the history of the state. It leaves grave questions in a lot of areas.”

While Hammond played the part of a serene, seasoned politician to the press, he was privately overjoyed. In the narrow window between the unofficial tally release and the legal battles that followed, he partnered with musician Dan Hopson to create a song for the occasion. Titled “Nip and Tuck,” it was published in the 1979 Panhandler’s Songbook Volume 1. The complete lyrics are as follows:

Oh, the crucial point in all campaigns is the moment when one ‘peaks.’

And every candidate’s objective which he diligently seeks

Is to do so on election day and not one day before or after

For if you miss that target date you’ll win naught but caustic laughter.

To “peak” one should climb a mountain but nothings quite that simple.

We labor long and work like mad,

But instead of peaking we just pimple

Yes, thirty-seven grains of sand don’t pile very high

But all it takes is one of them to beat the other guy.

So my thanks to all you “sand persons” who piled each and every grain,

Then lugged my carcass up to the top

Without you, I’d’ve gone down the drain.

The song is a victory lap, and the lyrics are correspondingly direct. The “thirty-seven grains of sand,” meaning the 37 voters who made all the difference, point to when Hammond wrote the song. As he knew better than most, a win was a win, whether by landslide or coin flip. While Hammond’s campaign peaked at the most opportune moment, Hickel’s was just a “pimple.” And surely there was plenty of “caustic laughter.”

There is no record of Hickel responding to the song or any evidence that he knew of its existence. He was also an author, albeit usually more earnest and pithy than Hammond. The Wit and Wisdom of Wally Hickel, a collection of his favorite bon mots and speeches, was published in 1994. Maybe Hickel would have appreciated what amounted to a folk diss track.


Despite Hickel’s repeated and vociferous legal objections, the unofficial 37-vote lead became an official 98-vote victory after a recount. There were indeed several irregularities during the election, including a box of ballots left unattended in a car trunk for several hours. However, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld the results. Steve Haycox wrote about the legal battle two years ago.

Undeterred, Hickel ran as a write-in candidate in the general election. This time, Hammond won easily, gaining 16,025 more votes than Hickel and 23,924 more votes than Democratic candidate Chancy Croft. This time there was no song. Sadly, Hammond also did not establish a precedent for gubernatorial songwriting.

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Key sources:

Hammond, Jay S. Chips from the Chopping Block: More Tales from Alaska’s Bush Rat Governor. Fairbanks: Epicenter Press, 2001.

Hammond, Jay S. Tales of Alaska’s Bush Rat Governor: The Extraordinary Autobiography of Jay Hammond Wilderness Guide and Reluctant Politician. Fairbanks: Epicenter Press, 1994.

Harmon, G. Michael. “Hammond by 37 Votes.” Anchorage Daily News, August 31, 1978, 1.

Nussbaum, Paul. “Too Close to Call!” Anchorage Daily News, August 23, 1978, 1.

Roderick, Barry H., editor. Panhandler’s Songbook: Folksongs of Southeast Alaska and the Yukon: Volume 1. Juneau: Archipelago, 1979.


Tyson, Ray. “Hickel Holds Slight Edge.” Anchorage Times, August 23, 1978, 1, 2.

Tyson, Ray. “Hickel Maintains Lead.” Anchorage Times, August 24, 1978, 1, 2.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.