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60 years ago this week, a group of citizens created the Alaska we know today

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published January 30, 2016

Vic Fischer's wife convinced him that as a young man, a recent immigrant and a newcomer to politics, he needed to campaign for election by going door to door, an idea that made him quite uncomfortable.

Screwing up his courage, Fischer drove from Anchorage to the Matanuska Valley, a part of his district where he might have weak support. He walked up to a house, but chickened out and didn't knock. At the next door, a woman came out who didn't know there was an election. She listened politely.

Then Fischer got back in the car and drove home to Anchorage.

Fortunately, it was enough. Fischer was elected as a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention.

Sixty years ago today, the convention was wrapping up in Fairbanks. The anniversary of the signing will be Friday.

Fischer's part in the convention remains his proudest achievement in a life of unequaled public service. He said the anniversary is coming at a good time.

Our Legislature now faces issues as important as those faced by the statehood generation. In some ways, the challenge is similar. Legislators must create a new state government for the post-oil era. With state spending a huge part of our economy, they're deciding our economic future, too.

In that sense, the stakes are higher now than they were 60 years ago. In 1956, Alaska was dirt-poor. Now we have vast savings that could keep us prosperous, but only one chance to use them wisely and avoid economic disaster.

That's a discouraging thought when you consider the quality of our Legislature's recent work. It barely passed a budget last year after working from January into June, and the budget it did pass was billions in the red.

By comparison, the convention wrote a document from scratch in 75 days that has been held up worldwide as a model framework for a resource-owning government. Overwhelmingly approved by voters, the Alaska Constitution helped us become a state in 1959 and has served us well since.

But politicians in the 1950s were as human as they are now. The 1953 Territorial House never formally adjourned, but disintegrated in chaos because the speaker and other members were too drunk to carry on business. After that debacle, the voters swept in a new majority, and that new Legislature called the constitutional convention.

Convention delegates ran in nonpartisan elections without a primary. Some were experienced politicians, while many were rookies like Fischer. At 31, he was third to the youngest, and many others were also relative newcomers to Alaska. They were miners, fishermen, lawyers and, in the case of their remarkable leader, Convention President Bill Egan, a grocer.

Wally Hickel, whom I assisted in writing a book, as I did with Fischer, corrected me one day when I was comparing Alaska's founding fathers to the geniuses who founded the United States. He said Fairbanks had no Washington, Franklin, Hamilton or Madison.

Hickel himself, barely educated, came up from the streets. But he became one of Alaska's wealthiest men and most important historic leaders (although not a delegate). Like Hickel, or like Fischer, at first too shy to campaign door to door, the delegates were ordinary people who did something great.

Maybe our current legislators could turn out to be the same.

I think a lot of our doubt comes from the impression legislators give of being self-serving deal-makers who care most about their own prestige and the success of their political parties. The reality is more complex.

Politicians get dirty hands. Some like it that way. Others play the game while waiting for their moment to do something meaningful. Some of those stay in too long and forget the difference. But for most, a chance to do something that really matters — to make history — is more important than the petty dance of power.

The gaze of history gives the present a conscience. Legislators serving today will be judged by future generations of Alaskans for the outcome they achieve this session.

You can see how that works in the transcripts of the convention, which are online.

The Fairbanks meetings sound at times like a messy city council meeting, with delegates fighting silly points, tangling up in parliamentary procedure, and getting mad over trifles. But magic happened. The resolve of the group to accomplish something larger than themselves helped the delegates write a document that probably couldn't have been created by anyone alone.

Fischer and I have spent so much time together, he suggested I make up his quotes for a column about the convention. I enjoy talking with him far too much to do that (of course, I wouldn't anyway). So I had the pleasure, once again, of listening as his supple 91-year-old brain vividly recreated the days when the state of Alaska was just a hope.

"At that point, there were those who said we could not afford statehood, because the cost of statehood was too great," he said. "And our response was, 'We will take on whatever burdens are necessary because we do want to become a state of the union.' We did have an income tax, we had a school tax, we had gasoline taxes, fish taxes, and all sorts of taxes."

Given how different these days are from those, could we do it again?

"The scales are different, but individuals did come together with totally different points of view, and extreme political divergence, and yet they managed to work together, discuss issues, reach compromises time and again and again," Fischer said.

The essence of the Alaska Constitution is optimism. The delegates knew they couldn't predict the challenges of future decades, so they created a system in which Legislatures and governors to come would have great power in their present moment.

We're in that future now, one the delegates couldn't have imagined. Thanks to the wisdom of those who went before us, we have control of our destiny.

Now our legislators must rise, as the delegates did, and make their own history. The Alaska Constitution gives them power for a reason. They must prove they deserve the confidence placed in them 60 years ago.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. He assisted Vic Fischer in writing "To Russian with Love: An Alaskan's Journey," and assisted Wally Hickel with "Crisis in the Commons: The Alaska Solution."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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