Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics
By Heather Lende. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2020. 288 pages. $25.95.
Haines resident Heather Lende, known for her three feel-good books about living in small-town Alaska (“If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name,” “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs,” and “Find the Good”), decided in 2016 to extend her good citizenship to running for her borough assembly. Within a year, she was targeted with two other assembly members for a recall, accused of misusing her official position and violating the Open Meetings Act. “Of Bears and Ballots” is the story of her experience running for election, winning one of two seats from among six competitors, learning the intricacies (and challenges) of governing and, finally, surviving a recall election.
Along the way she explores community values and the toxicity of today’s divisive politics as they seep from national to local levels. She departs from the strictly political to profile earlier residents, expand on a conversation with a Tlingit friend about colonialism and privilege, relate the story of another friend’s reunion with a son she gave up to adoption, and describe trips she made to Tenakee Springs and the Arctic.
Haines, Alaska, grew in Lende’s 30-plus years of residence from a logging and fishing town to an artsier community attractive to tourists and retirees. Always, it has been known for “colorful” characters. As well as writing books, Lende wrote some 400 obituaries for the local paper, served in various volunteer capacities — on the library and hospice boards and the borough planning commission and as the high school running coach and host of a public radio music program. Her husband ran a local lumber and hardware store. They raised five children and become active grandparents. She’d once been run over by a truck and recovered to continue bicycle racing. In the community of 2,500, spread across an area as large as Rhode Island, she knew almost everyone.
For someone so familiar with her community and constituents, Lende seemingly entered politics with naïveté to match her idealism. She took her job very seriously, writing at the top of each assembly agenda, “Be kind, be brave, be thankful.” She listened to everyone and tried to find balances among community needs. She writes, “I’m trying to be, I want to be, the kind of woman who says, and believes, that she can change the world through small acts, in small places, and have enough confidence — or is the word ‘wisdom'? — to actually do it.”
In Alaska, as Lende explains, recall elections can be easily initiated, with authorities who approve the process willing to grant considerable discretion to voters to decide if grounds are sufficient. Commonly, in the Haines case and in others in recent years, the official grounds of “misconduct in office, incompetence, or failure to perform prescribed duties” are not what rile voters. Instead, it’s decisions they don’t like. In Haines, the issues were policing, the design of a harbor project and the firing and hiring of city managers. Heather, one of the “liberal” assembly members, ran up against a bloc of voters who felt the community was tipping too far “left” from its conservative roots.
The emotion in this book sits on the surface, understandably raw. Lende repeatedly addresses the reader directly, as in “I would love to tell you …” and “You will remember.” Much of the writing is in the present tense, as though the author is writing it from the center of the storm, while some is more reflective, looking back across the short passage of time. Readers will feel Lende’s deep anguish when she sees names of friends in the list of recall signers, and when she’s told by another friend that she had to sign when she learned that Lende had taken away the mayor’s paycheck while the mayor was at the hospital with her ill mother — something that had never happened.
There’s a great deal here about the workings of local government — details of how ordinances are written, committees work, managers are hired, people are addressed, meetings are run. These will be informative for readers particularly interested in small-town government. Other readers will especially value Lende’s familiar storytelling about community members and events — her tea party with grandchildren, the wisdom of an older woman who hauls groceries and library books in her little wagon, a suicide and its aftermath.
But there’s a larger context here, too, and it should resonate on another level. Lende reflects on the Trump presidency and the tone it set for the nation, including small towns in Alaska. Where civic duty had been honored and civil behavior expected, a new nastiness was unleashed. In Haines, this was fostered by a closed Facebook group that got behind the recall effort and spread misinformation. When one meeting broke down into shouting, Lende asked, “Was this related to the way President Trump smacked down both colleagues and challengers, ignoring niceties or even the implied dignity of the office of the president as he campaigned? ... Is it the effect of the internet and Facebook making space for anonymous and not-so-anonymous bullies and thugs that comment crudely on everything?”
Noting that the recall effort affected her more than her two male colleagues, Lende also considers the role of women in politics. Always, as hostess, mother, high-achiever, she had built her life around accommodating and pleasing others. Had that made her seem “weak” and thus vulnerable to attacks? And left her traumatized when her fellow citizens did not reciprocate her generous feelings?
In the end, “Granny got another gear,” literally on a new bicycle and metaphorically as Lende drove herself into a post-political life. Her hard-won experience serves as both a Trump-era warning and a clarion call for citizens everywhere to honor public service and the representative democracy that depends on it.
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