It's hard to imagine now, but liberal politics once dominated Alaska.
Alaska didn't have much politics until the turn of the 20th century. There wasn't an effective, territory-wide Native organization (the Alaska Native Brotherhood was not founded until 1912); before the Gold Rush, the non-Native population never topped 5,000 (the Native population was about 30,000). It was only when the post-Gold Rush immigrant population swelled to 30,000 that Alaska politics became robust.
There's always been a liberal, idealist sector in American political life, and from the turn of the 20th century until America's entry into World War I, it was dominant. As corporate, industrial capitalism grew in the last decades of the 19th century, unconstrained magnates amassed levels of wealth and power undreamed of a mere generation earlier. Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Jay Gould, Harriman, Leland Stanford, Henry Clay Frick, Morgan, the Guggenheims and a host of others used their freedom to bring new products and a new standard of living to the American populace, but often did so by exploiting immigrant and child labor, selling tainted goods, using misleading advertising and wreaking havoc with the environment.
Not just labor and the downtrodden came to see as abuses of capitalism the denial of a living wage to workers, the use of the police and military to suppress unions, no consumer recourse to the purchase of adulterated food and drugs, the virtual enslavement of poor children in menial jobs, the use of campaign donations and kickbacks to control legislatures, and the despoliation of the nation's natural resources. By the time Theodore Roosevelt left office in 1908, the middle class had come fully on board what historians call the Progressive Movement, executive and legislative redress of corporate excess. Four years later when Woodrow Wilson defeated Roosevelt and incumbent William Howard Taft, it was virtually impossible to get elected to public office in the U.S. without professing progressive values.
That's when Alaska came of political age, and the Progressive legacy stuck. James Wickersham carried the "antitrust" banner in Alaska and controlled much of what happened here. He was responsible for persuading Congress to grant Alaska full territorial status complete with a democratically elected legislature, and funding a government railroad in the territory, as competition to the Guggenheim-owned Copper River railroad. The first law passed by the first Alaska Legislature gave women the vote; that was 1913.
Alaska politics stayed liberal, which after the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 meant Democrat, through the first two-thirds of the 20th century under the leadership of Anthony Dimond, who succeeded Wickersham as Alaska's man in Congress, his successor Bob Bartlett and then territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening.
At statehood, Bartlett and Gruening became U.S. senators from Alaska. William Egan as governor and John Rader as the state's first attorney general guided much legislation based on liberal values through the political process. In 1970, for example, the Legislature guaranteed a woman's right to an abortion here. In 1971 the Legislature moved to protect Alaska's historical and cultural resources by state law. In the same year Egan's attorney general, John Havelock, led the state in cooperating with the Alaska Federation of Natives to frame the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, protecting Alaska Native land and empowering Alaska Native people and communities. There were many other manifestation of liberal values in legislative, executive and judicial action.
All that changed in the mid-1970s, when the impact of Big Oil began to be felt. The change was gradual. Jay Hammond, a Republican, ran as an eco-sensitive centrist conservative, barely defeating Wally Hickel in primaries, and Democrat Bill Sheffield governed as a right-centrist Democrat. But the Legislature moved increasingly conservative, and the reason was not difficult to discern. The oil industry wants the least tax burden possible and the least environmental regulation conscionable. Large industry campaign contributions to politicians supporting just those values made the difference in more and more races. Many went to Juneau with the understanding that what was good for the oil industry was good for Alaska, and found it hard to understand or compromise with anyone calling for taxes or tighter regulation.
There were many other forces at work in Alaska's complicated politics, but this gloss captures the big picture, for better or worse.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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