To understand politics in Alaska, the strange and eventful life of former Gov. Bill Sheffield provides a valuable lesson.
He survived a close brush with impeachment, advanced an airport train station in Anchorage that is lightly used and ran the Port of Anchorage when a disastrous expansion project wasted at least $125 million.
But today he remains a respected senior statesman, well liked and praised by leaders across the political spectrum. The train station is named for him. In October, Ethan Berkowitz celebrated his first 100 days as mayor at Sheffield's beautiful house overlooking Cook Inlet.
"Where did all that credibility come from? How did that happen?" asked Stan Jones, who as a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner uncovered the bid rigging scheme that led a grand jury to call for Sheffield's impeachment 30 years ago. "It seems like he came out of that scandal with two strikes against him, competence and integrity. … How is this guy still credible, after all the disasters that befell him?"
I can answer that question. Alaska's political world is tiny and works through personal relationships. It's like a high school. And Sheffield is popular among his classmates.
He's likable and disarmingly open in one-on-one conversation. He remembers people and seems to care about them. He charmed me this week in a long phone interview from his home in Palm Springs, California.
Sheffield has used his influence and his money to help people running for office, and he throws a lot of fundraisers for charity, too. A list of his campaign contributions from the Alaska Public Offices Commission goes on for pages, covering just the last five years. The money comes from a hotel chain he sold decades ago.
Since the 1970s, Sheffield has thrown countless fundraisers.
"I should have years ago started to keep a diary or a punch list of how many fundraisers I've had at my house, and who for, and how much raised," he said. "It would be millions."
Sheffield gives to conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Mainly, he supports winners. And when he picks wrong, he sometimes switches. He supported Dan Coffey for mayor this year, but when Berkowitz won he threw a fundraiser to help pay off the new mayor's campaign debt, plus putting on the 100 days event as a fundraiser for the Alaska Democratic Party. A party official said it raised $7,000. In 2013, he gave $500 to the Alaska Republican Party.
Sheffield also switched after supporting Gov. Sean Parnell for re-election in 2014. He laughed about the long line at a card table for donors at his fundraiser for Gov. Bill Walker. People came who he normally doesn't see. "They wanted to be on record that they supported him," he said.
Why do a fundraiser for Walker after backing Parnell?
"In the end there, he deserved to win," Sheffield said. "He worked hard, he's a good man, and he was born and raised in Alaska, and has a large family, and I'm sure he was pretty well in debt."
Sheffield said the fundraiser brought in $80,000.
Politicians say contributions don't influence them. Sheffield says they get you recognized. And I think that's fair.
I served on the Anchorage Assembly for six years in the 1990s. Raising money for a campaign is emotionally draining. Imagine it -- cold-calling hundreds of strangers and asking them to give you money just because you're a good person? If Sheffield had offered to hold a fundraiser for me, you bet I would have accepted.
So what happens when a contributor contacts you later on an issue? Politics is about emotions. I was raised to be grateful to people who give me things. I took their calls. I would try hard not to be influenced, but once you're on the phone it's not easy to tell why you are being persuaded, especially on complex issues no one cares about except the donor.
Sheffield's influence helped fund Alaska projects in Washington, D.C.
When Tony Knowles became governor in 1994, he appointed Sheffield as chairman of the Alaska Railroad Board of Directors, then asked him to become its CEO.
"One of the things he did very well as CEO of the railroad was that he had very close connections with (Senator) Ted Stevens and with (Representative) Don Young, and at the time Don Young was chair of the Transportation Committee," Knowles said.
Sheffield successfully lobbied for large appropriations to the railroad. When Mayor George Wuerch put him in charge of the Port of Anchorage in 2001, Sheffield brought home huge appropriations for expansion work there, too.
Through a spokesman, Young said, "We shared a friendship, but that's not why we funded the projects. These projects were extremely important for Alaskans and I was in a place and position to help. He brought them to my attention and explained the merit. I would've done it even if we weren't friends."
Some of that money was spent well and some wasn't. The Bill Sheffield Alaska Railroad Depot isn't used much. This year, it had two round-trip trains a week for the 18 weeks of summer, connecting Seward cruise passengers to their flights. Of the $300 million in federal money the city paid for the disastrous port project, Sheffield says $175 million went to successful improvements like drainage and roads that are still worthwhile.
The city has blamed the port problems on the U.S. Maritime Agency, claims which are in court.
In the end, Sheffield never got impeached or fired. When he resigned from the port in 2011, at 83, he received a $60,000 consulting contract from then Mayor Dan Sullivan to continue work on the project.
Sullivan was present for the resignation announcement. It happened at a fundraiser for him at Sheffield's house.
Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. A lifelong Anchorage resident, he is the author of more than 10 books, and hosts radio shows on Alaska Public Media. Find him on Facebook.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing