From 1997: Just call Tom Fink Mr. Conservative

Originally published in the Anchorage Daily News on March 23, 1997 as part of the newspaper’s coverage of that year’s mayoral campaign.

A Hollywood casting director would have a hard time finding a better man than Tom Fink to play the role of frugal curmudgeon. His Irish tweed hat, his Crown Victoria in the driveway, the electric percolator and can of Folgers on the kitchen counter, his four wool suits (brown, dark brown, gray and dark green) all conspire to make it obvious this Fink is a very conservative man.

’'I’m even a conservative Catholic,’' said Fink, who goes to Mass every morning. His wife, Pat, his high school sweetheart, was the traditional, stay-at-home wife who cooked meals from scratch while Fink disciplined the kids -- all 11 of them. They’ve lived in the same home in Spenard for 36 years.

In 1987, with the city in the midst of a real estate market collapse -- a collapse that eventually forced Fink to lose his real estate holdings and millionaire status -- voters chose Fink to be their mayor. In his six and half years on the job, he reaffirmed his public image as a stubborn man who always speaks his mind -- in blunt, simple language -- even when he shouldn’t.

His administration never had a public scandal, and there is no evidence he was enriched by his public service. He worked hard and built a loyal staff.

As mayor, he often spent his Sunday afternoons driving around town inspecting public works projects, making sure the road barricades were properly in place or that traffic wasn’t blocked. After the city installed a water tank at the airport at the end of summer, Fink drove to the airport to make sure it was painted before winter set in.

’'When you think of Tom Fink,’' said Assembly Chairman Mark Begich, ’'you think of graders and trucks, moving dirt, building roads, plowing snow.’'


People. They were much harder for Fink to handle, his critics say. In public, he could be abrasive and confrontational. He was elected during a time when the tax base was shrinking -- property values had fallen 40 percent in less than two years. While many officials agreed that budgets needed cutting, his critics say, he went about the task in such a way that he alienated some of his own supporters.

’'No one could give him any input he would listen to,’' said John Wood, a conservative who was Assembly chairman when Fink came in office. Wood said Fink could have established a voting bloc of conservatives on the Assembly, but he was so inflexible and obstinate that conservatives often joined the opposition to override his vetoes.

No mayor wielded the veto pen more than Fink. By his own count, Fink issued 160 vetoes, an average of one almost every two weeks. The Assembly overrode him 85 times.

During three Assembly election cycles, Fink either publicly backed or gave barely concealed support to people running against sitting Assembly members. Most of the time his candidates lost; Fink won instead the enmity of most he had opposed.

Fink rarely lobbied Assembly members to get them to take his side, and frequently said he didn’t care how many votes lined up against him.

Fink failed to win Assembly support for his goals because he did a poor job when he argued for them, and was often ill-prepared in debates, said former Assembly member Heather Flynn.

In 1992, Fink got so sideways with the Assembly and the School Board over the school budget that the Assembly voted down the budget in order to save it. The city charter says the budget goes into effect as presented by the School Board if the Assembly fails to act. Assembly members knew if they acted, Fink would veto. Fink vetoed anyway, asserting he had as much right to veto a non-action as an action.

Craig Campbell, who was Assembly chairman during the last part of Fink’s term, said the tough economic times created confrontation. The public was clamoring for budget cuts, he said, but officials couldn’t agree on where to cut.

’'A lot of what you saw,’' Campbell said, ’'would have happened no matter who was mayor.’' While Assembly members liked the idea of reducing budgets in the abstract, Fink recalled, they howled when he made the cuts real. ’'If you want to spend more money, a mayor can be on friendly relations with the assembly,’' he said. ’'If you say ‘no’ to no one, everyone is happy, but you end up in a sad situation.’'

Fink said he has mellowed in his retirement, but he still finds compromise a difficult thing to do. ’'If compromise isn’t an advancement, why do it?’' he said. ’'You’re better off going down in flames.’'

Fink traces his plain manner to his Midwestern roots. He was born in Peoria, Ill., in 1928. His father, a tariff clerk for Caterpillar Tractor Co., later moved the family to a farm in the nearby town. Fink milked cows every morning before heading off to school.

Voted ’'best personality’' by his classmates, all the girls were crazy about Fink, recalled his wife, Pat. They married when he was in law school. After he graduated, he went to Alaska. After he found a job as a law clerk, he sent for his wife and daughter.

It took a few years for Fink to find his calling selling life insurance. In 1964, he took in a partner, Don Schroer, who stills runs the business in the basement office in Fink’s home.

Fink’s political career began in 1966 when he was elected to the first of five terms in the state House. He became speaker in 1973. He ran for mayor of Anchorage in 1984 but lost by fewer than 200 votes to Tony Knowles. In 1987, Anchorage voters made him mayor.

Fink’s legacy, according to his supporters, is that his cutbacks during the recession made it easier for Mystrom to increase services during better economic times. Critics, however, say his confrontational style polarized the community.

Most agree Fink’s political battles have left him with a public image as a caustic, angry fighter, a bulldog in a bow tie. Although Fink could raise his voice sharply, and even sarcastically at times, his mean-guy image is far from the truth, say those who know him.

Even some enemies who hated his policies say they liked Tom Fink the person. Begich said people are able to separate Fink the man from Fink the ideologue.


’'He didn’t hold personal grudges,’' Begich said. ’'And people didn’t hold grudges against him.’'

Wood, who still goes skiing with Fink despite his harsh criticisms of him, said of Fink: ’'I think he’s a gentleman.’'

But Kevin Harun, director of the Alaska Center for the Environment, said Fink ignored him or others with whom he disagreed.

After Fink was elected, Harun said, he went into his office and gave the new mayor a puffin T-shirt and tried to find an issue he and Fink could work on together. Litter was the only thing Fink could think of, Harun said. He said they never met again.

’'People need to remember what it was like with the Fink administration,’' Harun said. Factions of the community were at war with each other; Fink couldn’t bring people together because he ’'never put aside his ideology. He told you what he thought, but he never listened to what you thought.’'

Dick McVeigh, a longtime Fink friend who worked for him as municipal attorney, said Fink did listen, but he simply refused to buckle under pressure from groups trying to change his mind, especially when it came to spending.

’'He throws a nickel around,’' he said, ’'like it was a manhole cover.’'

Daily News reporter Steve Rinehart contributed to this story.

Tom Bell

Tom Bell is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He was later a reporter for the Portland Press Herald in Maine.