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Ranking Alaska's governors

  • Author: Alaska_Politics
  • Updated: April 29, 2016
  • Published September 15, 2008

Gregg Erickson, the Juneau economist and longtime government-watcher, wrote columns last Sunday and yesterday evaluating the nine of Alaska's governors since statehood.

Here are both columns:

Alaska's governors since statehood can help in ranking Gov. Palin's term

First of two parts

By GREGG ERICKSON

Since John McCain announced Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate I've been besieged with national and international news media. I've talked about Palin in an "online Q & A" for the Washington Post, been interviewed twice on National Public Radio, done a live interview with the BBC, and participated in a live drive-time program on Irish national radio. In addition I've tried to answer questions from dozens of other reporters trying frantically to find something new about our governor, or nail down a crucial fact.

I've been watching Alaska governors ever since statehood in 1959, the year I graduated from Anchorage (now West) High School. If reporters realize I've been around that long they usually ask me something like, "How do you think Palin stacks up as governor?"

It's a tough question. Counting Palin, nine people have served as governor since statehood. Let's consider them all.

BILL EGAN (1959-66; 1970-74)

Alaska had just over 200,000 people when Egan became governor, and he knew most of them by their first name, even my kid brother, Trygve. Egan was an awful public speaker, but he presided successfully over the Alaska Constitutional Convention. By the time he was sworn in as governor three years later, Egan had proven himself a statesman, firm in principle yet a master of compromise. breakDuring his first stint as governor he staffed a lean and efficient state government almost from scratch, managed emergency response and rebuilding after the Great Alaska Earthquake, and created more state parks than any governor in any state, before or since. When Egan reclaimed the governor's seat in 1970 he didn't do as well, but he still remains number one in my book of Alaska's governors.

WALTER HICKEL (1966-69; 1990-94)

Hickel presided over construction of the Hickel Highway, one of the greatest man-made environmental disasters in Alaska history. "I drove (the tractor) the first six or seven miles myself," Hickel crowed. "I got off and I told Jim, I said, 'don't you shut this thing off until you get to Prudhoe Bay.' " The road was built in the winter of 1967. In the spring it became a muddy ditch, leaving a huge scar on the landscape that remains visible to this day. That disaster birthed the modern environmental movement in Alaska.

But Hickel stood firm against those who were trying to pocket so-called "non-competitive" state oil leases for next to nothing, insisting that the leases should go to the highest bidder. During his second stint in Juneau Hickel stood up to the oil industry but lost a key legislative fight that cost the state millions in back oil taxes.

At age 89, Wally remains an active and honored figure in Alaska for his independent spirit and for promoting the idea that Alaska should manage its resources like a private corporation whose objective is to maximize revenue for its stockholders, the citizens. It's not a bad rule.

KEITH MILLER (1969-70)

When President Nixon appointed Hickel secretary of the interior, Miller, Alaska's little-known secretary of state, succeeded him. My father told Miller he was a "reactionary," a term Miller recently admitted he relished. The big event of Miller's short tenure was the $900 million in lease bonus money the state received in September 1969, seven times the state budget of that year. In 1970 Miller was the first to suggest creation of a permanent fund, an idea about seven years ahead of its time.

JAY HAMMOND (1974-82)

Hammond was a good governor, but his accomplishments don't quite match his lofty reputation. Hammond was the first governor to shape policies that reflected the changing attitude to the environment. He played a decisive role in establishing the Permanent Fund, and, over the objections of almost every other state political leader, the Permanent Fund dividend.

Every year Hammond's budget message to legislators warned about excessive growth in state government, yet each year he approved a budget that greatly exceeded the year before. While some of the oil money went to the Permanent Fund, vastly more rolled into new government programs and capital projects. Like the Delta Barley Project, some have since become icons of pork-barrel waste.

In 1981, near the end of Hammond's years as governor, the oil industry gained power to kill or modify to its liking any legislation adversely affecting its interests in Alaska. It's a power the industry would hold until Sarah Palin came on the scene 27 years later.

Next Sunday I'll cover the remaining former governors -- Bill Sheffield, Steve Cowper, Tony Knowles, and Frank Murkowski, and I'll assess where Sarah Palin stands in relation to her predecessors.

***

Following Murkowski a stroke of luck for Palin

Part 2 of 2

By GREGG ERICKSON

How does Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stack up against her predecessors? I've lived long enough and been lucky enough to have personally known each of the nine people who've served as governor of this state, but it's still a tough question.

Last Sunday I assessed the accomplishments of the first four governors -- Bill Egan, Walter Hickel, Keith Miller and Jay Hammond. I explained why Egan was my pick as the state's top governor. Today, in the second and concluding part of this essay, I address the remaining five governors, including Palin.

BILL SHEFFIELD (1982-1986)

Sheffield was unlucky. He took office just as oil prices and state revenue began their slide from the heady heights reached under Hammond. But Sheffield's troubled tenure as governor wasn't just bad luck. He was dogged by allegations of campaign finance violations, and in 1985 a grand jury recommended that he be impeached for an alleged effort to steer a $9 million state contract to a group of political cronies.

Although Sheffield was never formally charged with a crime, the Alaska Senate called itself into special session that summer to consider his impeachment. After 30 relentless days of televised hearings the Senate voted 12 to 8 against forwarding the charges to the House for trial. But Sheffield, a Democrat, lost his bid for a second term anyway, becoming the first of two Alaska governors booted out by voters in his own party's primary.

STEVE COWPER (1986-1990)

Like Egan and Hammond, Cowper attracted remarkably talented people to serve in state government, but he never seemed quite comfortable in the job. As with Sheffield, declining oil revenue forced difficult choices. He pushed the idea of using Permanent Fund income to cover the costs of the state's education aid program for local school districts, but that plan never got off the ground.

In March 1989, Cowper surprised Alaskans by announcing that he wouldn't run for a second term. A day later the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of toxic crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound, sullying seas and beaches as far west as the Alaska Peninsula. Cowper's response to the environmental disaster was decisive, yet thoughtful and informed. It was the finest achievement of four years as governor. Moreover, he skillfully used public outrage over the spill to push a limited oil-tax reform bill through the industry-dominated Legislature.

TONY KNOWLES (1994-2002)

Cowper was followed by Walter Hickel's second term, discussed last week. Then came Tony Knowles, the best manager ever to occupy the Capitol's third-floor executive suite. Better than any other governor, Knowles knew what was going on in the state bureaucracy and made sure the bureaucrats knew what he expected of them. I never observed a public disagreement among Knowles' commissioners, a feat not achieved before or since.

Knowles never met an oil industry idea he didn't like, a grave defect in my view. His administration kept its distance from Veco and the corruption that during his second term began to evince itself in the Legislature. That's too bad. An aggressive investigation at that time would have displeased Knowles' oil allies, but it might have forestalled the culture of corruption that soon came to dominate Alaska state politics.

FRANK MURKOWSKI (2002-2006)

Murkowski was Alaska's worst governor. Fortunately, he was also its most incompetent, so his ill-considered ideas on the Permanent Fund, oil taxes and the gas pipeline never went anywhere. Unfortunately, corruption flourished on Murkowski's watch. I also think that was due to his ineptitude. Others hold a less charitable view.

SARAH PALIN (2006-PRESENT)

Egan and Hammond were transformative governors: They forever changed political life in Alaska, leaving an indelible stamp on the state. Despite her short tenure, I believe history will rank Palin as a transformative governor, presiding as she has as the state emerges politically from 27 years of oil industry domination.

I say this notwithstanding the weaknesses Palin has displayed as governor. She is naive if not disinterested regarding the boring elements of state government such as the personnel system and the laws that govern it. She has demonstrated little skill in mentoring or allocating trust and authority to subordinates. And she has trouble distinguishing the difference between her public responsibilities and her personal and family desires, a problem that has her embroiled in a legislative investigation of the sort not seen since the Legislature considered impeaching Sheffield.

Finally, let's remember one other important thing: Palin is lucky. Following Murkowski is the biggest break any governor could hope for.

No matter what comes next -- impeachment for abuse of power, elevation as vice president or merely two or six more years of being governor -- Palin has secured a prominent and permanent place in Alaska history.

Juneau economic consultant Gregg Erickson is editor-at-large of the Alaska Budget Report. He can be contacted at gerickso@alaska.com.

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