Former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel, whose two terms representing Alaska spanned the passage of landmark federal legislation that played a pivotal role in shaping the future of the state, has died. He was 91.
Gravel, who represented Alaska as a Democrat in the Senate from 1969 to 1981, died Saturday, according to his daughter, Lynne Mosier. Gravel had been living in Seaside, California, and was struggling with multiple myeloma, Mosier said.
Gravel read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record and confronted Barack Obama about nuclear weapons during a later presidential run. He was a man dedicated to his work and passionate about doing what he believed was right, said William Hoffman, who worked as Gravel’s legislative assistant for about a decade.
“He was a guy that has very deep convictions and he pursued those in a very determined way. He was not a person who blended in and he knew that very much about himself the whole time he was in the Senate,” Hoffman said. “Up to the end, he was pushing for some things he believed were important for the country and for the world and he was quite prepared to stand alone, though he would have much preferred to have other people standing with him.”
Gravel focused intensely on finding unconventional solutions to help people, said his former chief of staff Robert Mitchell. He had politics on his mind even as he met with Mitchell on Tuesday for the last time.
“When I left Tuesday evening, I said, ‘Well, do you want me to call you when I get back to Washington?’ and he told me, ‘That’s not necessary, just do the job. Keep working,’ " Mitchell said. “That was his theme, he worked and worked and worked.”
Gravel’s two terms came during tumultuous years for Alaska when construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was authorized and when Congress was deciding how to settle Alaska Native land claims and whether to classify enormous amounts of federal land as parks, preserves and monuments.
Gravel advocated for the pipeline and proposed legislation that would allow construction to go forward after it had been halted by lawsuits from environmental organizations, said Tim Bradner, publisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest and Alaska Economic Report. Critics accused Gravel of grandstanding, but the legislation passed after gaining support from then-President Richard Nixon.
Gravel was also an Alaska Democrat when some residents were burning President Jimmy Carter in effigy for his measures to place large sections of public lands in the state under protection from development.
Gravel feuded with Alaska’s other senator, Republican Ted Stevens, on the land matter, preferring to fight Carter’s actions and rejecting Stevens’ advocacy for a compromise.
“I’m an independent kind of guy,” Gravel said in a 1989 Daily News article. “A rough and ready kind of guy. My glands work in a certain way that make me stand up, foolishly sometimes, and fight.”
In the end, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, a compromise that set aside millions of acres for national parks, wildlife refuges and other protected areas. It was one of the last bills Carter signed before leaving office.
Gravel’s Senate tenure also was notable for his anti-war activity. In 1971, he led a one-man filibuster to protest the Vietnam-era draft and he read into the Congressional Record 4,100 pages of the 7,000-page leaked document known as the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s history of the country’s early involvement in Vietnam.
Gravel read the papers despite fears he could be jailed or kicked out of the Senate, according to Mitchell.
“It was truly frightening what he was undertaking because he did not know what the consequences would be, but he thought the war was just a horror and that he needed to do all that he could,” Hoffman said.
Gravel was born Maurice Robert Gravel on May 13, 1930, to French Canadian parents who had immigrated to the U.S. He was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, and later attended a French-speaking Catholic grade school. Gravel served in the U.S. Army for three years before attending Columbia University and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Mosier said he worked as a taxi driver to support himself during school.
He moved to Alaska in 1956, three years before statehood, and began working as a real estate agent, eventually opening his own real estate office. Gravel saw Alaska as a land of opportunities where he could make his own way, Mosier said.
“Alaska was a place where you could do something bigger, and I think it fits him perfectly because Alaska is different, and it’s strong, and it’s not afraid of being its own thing. And so to me, that just reminds me of my dad,” Mosier said.
Gravel was naturally an introvert who became an extrovert to work in politics, daughter Mosier said. He worked on a campaign in Massachusetts and fell in love with the world of politics, she said.
In 1958, Gravel unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the Alaska Territorial Legislature. He lost a bid for Anchorage City Council in 1959 but was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives, where he served from 1963 to 1966. He became speaker of the House in 1965.
In 1968, Gravel ousted sitting U.S. Sen. Ernest Gruening in the Democratic primary and went on to represent the state in the Senate for the next 12 years.
“I went up there broke, and 12 years later I was in the U.S. Senate,” Gravel told the Daily News in 2016.
Bradner described Gravel as a maverick who wanted to better the lives of Alaska Natives in rural communities. He was especially interested in rural education because there were no schools in rural Alaska, Bradner said, and he developed a bond that later passed to develop regional schools for rural students.
Gravel served two terms until he was defeated in the 1980 Democratic primary by Gruening’s grandson, Clark Gruening, who lost the election to Republican Frank Murkowski.
Gravel was known for his independent thinking and always had new ideas, Hoffman said.
“He was a very creative person,” Hoffman said. “He was constantly throwing out new ideas, policy ideas. And I think it’s the case with anyone who is always throwing off ideas, they don’t all stick to the wall. ... I think some of the some of the things that maybe were thought to be somewhat ludicrous when you put them out there were in retrospect, people that look at them say, ‘Well, that really was a good idea.’ ”
One of Gravel’s big visions was “Denali City” — a large tent that would have encompassed hotels, shops, tennis courts, ice rinks and more — all under four square miles.
[Commentary from 2016: Some of this former Alaska senator’s ideas maybe weren’t so crazy after all]
His dream of drawing tourists to Alaska in the winter months never became a reality. Neither did his idea of creating a high-speed train to Denali traveling over 300 miles an hour.
Gravel reentered national politics decades after his time in the Senate to twice run for president. Gravel, then 75, and his wife, Whitney, took public transportation in 2006 to announce he was running for president as a Democrat in the 2008 election ultimately won by Obama.
He launched his quest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination as a critic of the Iraq war.
“I believe America is doing harm every day our troops remain in Iraq — harm to ourselves and to the prospects for peace in the world,” Gravel said in 2006. He hitched his campaign to an effort that would give all policy decisions to the people through a direct vote, including health care reform and declarations of war. Gravel believed that direct democracy was essential to act as another check and balance, Mosier said. It is one of the topics he was most passionate about, especially later in his life, she said.
Gravel garnered attention for his fiery comments at Democratic forums.
In one 2007 debate, the issue of the possibility of using nuclear weapons against Iran came up, and Gravel confronted then-Sen. Obama. “Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?” Gravel said. Obama replied: “I’m not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike.”
Mosier said her father believed tax money was squandered on nuclear weapons.
Gravel then ran as a Libertarian candidate after he was excluded from later Democratic debates.
In an email to supporters, he said the Democratic Party “no longer represents my vision for our great country.” “It is a party that continues to sustain war, the military-industrial complex and imperialism — all of which I find anathema to my views,” he said.
He failed to get the Libertarian nomination.
Gravel briefly ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. He again criticized American wars and vowed to slash military spending. His last campaign was notable in that both his campaign manager and chief of staff were just 18 at the time of his short-lived candidacy.
“There was never any ... plan that he would do anything more than participate in the debates. He didn’t plan to campaign, but he wanted to get his ideas before a larger audience,” Johnson said.
Gravel failed to qualify for the debates. He endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the contest eventually won by now-President Joe Biden.
Gravel is survived by his wife, Whitney Stewart, of Seaside; two children, Martin Gravel of Parker, Colorado, and Lynne Mosier in Austin, Texas; two sisters; four grandchildren; a great-grandson; and his former wife, Rita Martin, of Parker, Colorado.
Details of a celebration of life have not yet been announced.
This story includes reporting by Daily News reporters Tess Williams and Samantha Davenport, along with material from the Associated Press and ADN archives.
Note: This story has been edited to correct a caption error. The caption with the photo of Sen. Gravel being sworn into office should have said it occurred in 1975, not 1969.