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Elder Republicans quit a party they no longer believe in

When I heard Pat Ryan was thinking about voting Democratic, I had to hear it for myself.

Ryan was chief of staff to Gov. Wally Hickel, Alaska's first Republican governor, during both his 1966 and his 1990 administrations, and held the same job at the U.S. Department of the Interior when Hickel was in President Richard Nixon's Cabinet. Hickel had the big ideas and Ryan, a no-nonsense businessman, got them done.

He was as Republican as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. But would Eisenhower be a Republican these days?

I sat down with Ryan and some other old-timers who have abandoned the Alaska Republican Party. I heard their fears about Donald Trump's demagoguery and their disappointment with the performance of the Republican majorities in the Alaska Legislature in addressing the state's fiscal crisis.

"I'd be very reluctant to call myself a Republican today," Ryan said. "I'm still a registered Republican, and if I thought there was any potential that I could change their philosophy, I would sure as hell say I'm a dedicated Republican, but I don't like where they're going, and I'm afraid they're going to self-destruct."

Malcolm Roberts also worked for Hickel in Washington and Juneau and was an aide to Republican Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom in the 1990s. He ran for lieutenant governor and state senator as a Republican, was a member of the party's Central Committee and chair of its Platform Committee and Resolutions Committee.

During Mystrom's term, as Anchorage grew more ethnically diverse, Roberts worked to connect the city's immigrant groups. Fighting discrimination has become a driving force in his life. In 2008, after he read Barack Obama's autobiography, he switched parties so he could participate in the Alaska Democratic caucuses and support him.

"It's amazing what he's accomplished despite all this racist opposition," Roberts said. "I think he'll go down as one of the great presidents."

He said the Republican Party won't deserve to govern until it rids its agenda of racial and religious prejudice.

Arliss Sturgulewski won the Republican nomination for governor twice, in 1986 and 1990, and served 14 years as a Republican in the state Senate. She said she's registered nonpartisan now because the party has moved too far to the right.

Her classic line is, "I didn't leave the Republican Party, the party left me."

The situation in Juneau worries her. As partisanship has become more severe, solving problems like the state's fiscal crisis has become more difficult.

"I have always believed in crossing party lines and thinking of the whole of Alaska," Sturgulewski said. "In that way, I am less than a perfect party member, because I think you involve everybody when you can. And I have been distressed that there doesn't seem to be more leadership for cross-party actions for the best of the state."

Several things have happened to divide these political elders from their party.

Political activism by religious conservatives in the 1980s moved the Republican Party strongly right on social issues, especially in Alaska. The influence of the oil industry also sank in deeply around that time. Before the 1980s, the party had room even for Gov. Jay Hammond, whose 1974 platform included buying back some oil leases to protect the environment.

Two election changes also moved the Alaska Republican Party to the right.

In 1992, the Republicans closed their primary elections to voters of other parties. Sturgulewski, Hickel and Hammond would have had trouble in the closed primary. They won in elections when primary voters could choose their favorites regardless of party labels. Today, the closed primary weeds out candidates who don't court the party's most conservative voters.

At the same time, our partisan reapportionment board has created ever more lopsided election districts. Politicians like safe seats. Software that allows fine-tuning of voting patterns allows them to draw lines to assure one party or the other controls each district. With only one party in the game, there's no reason for candidates to appeal to the middle.

Ryan points to another cause: money. He said being Republican meant something different when he was working with Hickel, newspaper publisher Bob Atwood, and other founders of the state.

"What drove Hickel and Atwood and that bunch — what drove me to get involved — was that we were collectively doing what we thought was best for Alaska, and that was a powerful force," he said. "It was a group of people who wanted to build Alaska. And that was good. What a political party should be is people who are philosophically compatible who come together to drive their interest. But when money became such a factor, it substantially degraded that philosophical force that initially drove the political process. Now you can have that, but that's only a foundation. That's only a baseline. The real force is — you better be paying attention to where the money is going."

It's natural for retired leaders to fondly recall the good old days. The politics of Alaska's past could be ugly, too. But before the Alaska Republican Party closed itself off from moderate points of view, state government worked better. Politicians put more value on consensus and solutions and less on ideology. On the whole, we had legislators who were smarter and more committed to the public interest.

The first generation of state leaders would have been embarrassed by the oil tax credit debate going on now Juneau. There's no public justification for Alaska to make uneconomic investments in oil wells, paying out credits with no hope of eventual payback to the treasury. Yet Republican legislators are fighting to spend more on that than anything else — up to three times what they spend on the University of Alaska.

The presidential election campaign also has brought out discontent with the system.

"I'm very concerned about where it's going," Ryan said. "It's time for a peaceful revolution, as Sanders says. We've got to start addressing the concerns of the people. You can't buy the office."

That's right; Pat Ryan is quoting a Democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. I heard it with my own ears.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

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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