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Talk of Sullivan's Alaska status echoes an old question

  • Author: Michael Carey
    | Alaska opinion
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published October 14, 2014

A newcomer to the Last Frontier asked my Dad, "Mr. Carey, just how long do you have to be in Alaska before you become a real Alaskan?" Fabian didn't hesitate - "Just long enough for your brains to freeze."

The back-and-forth over Republican Dan Sullivan's qualifications as an Alaskan brought this quip from yesteryear to mind. Sullivan isn't the first candidate for major office to face criticism of his pedigree. Republicans routinely called Sen. Ernest Gruening a carpetbagger during his campaigns in the 50s and 60s, although Gruening had arrived in the territory in 1939.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, driven by publisher Bill Snedden's contempt for Gruening, published photographs of a home he owned in Washington, D.C. identifying it as his true residence.

No one is more "real Alaskan" than the young man or woman who, having driven the Alaska Highway, spends his or her first night on the Last Frontier in a sleeping bag, anxiously tossing and turning while wondering about the future.

Tens of thousands of men and women have had that experience or a similar experience. In 1937, Fabian himself was a 20-year-old lanky greenhorn who slept in the willows on the outskirts of Fairbanks after hitch-hiking to the Interior from Valdez. He had come from Minneapolis to seek his fortune in the wilderness.

Unlike those newcomers, Sullivan did not have to seek his fortune in Alaska. He arrived a child of privilege, raised among America's 1 percent. In fact, he is a graduate of an Indiana prep school and several of the most prestigious, expensive universities in the United States. The privilege continues today. His Ohio family, owners of a large corporation with international reach, has contributed more than $675,000 to groups supporting his campaign. Friendly millionaires have showered large donations on his bid for the Senate.

Sullivan, from what I can tell, only talks about his family wealth publicly when the subject is forced on him, and he certainly doesn't say what Nelson Rockefeller said of his family fortune: "Wasn't it wonderful of granddad to make all this lovely money?"

I have heard Sullivan say nothing was handed to him; his parents expected him to work. No doubt they did. But Sullivan is not living a Horatio Alger story. The boss's son is never a regular Joe on the factory floor. He is an heir, and everybody on the factory floor knows it.

In introducing himself, Sullivan habitually mentions his wife, Julie Fate Sullivan, and her Athabascan roots. It's true about her roots. Julie's mother, Mary Jane Fate, is an Alaska Native and was a distinguished Native leader. She also served on the University of Alaska Board of Regents. But your in-laws' roots are not transferable and don't make you anything more than an in-law. You can't become a First Alaskan by marriage.

My father-in-law was a Scotsman. My mother-in-law was a Scot too. That doesn't make me Braveheart.

People edit and rewrite their autobiographies all the time. But Sullivan's rewrite is a makeover in which he has substituted his Alaska family for his wealthy, well-connected Ohio family. He is showing us a family photo with half his family left out. There's political advantage in talking about his Alaska family. There is no advantage in talking about his Ohio family, although there is plenty of advantage in their connections and money.

Michael Carey is an Alaska Dispatch News columnist.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)