Saturday, November 24, 2007
As Midwinter Approaches, We Ponder our Future...
I wrote this article for Howie Klein at Down With Tyranny, where it appeared yesterday:
Women have a saying up here-- Alaska, where the odds are good, but the goods are odd. For men, at least-- the odds keep getting better. For women, unfortunately, the goods couldn't get much more odd. Which might be part of the reason Alaska, the land of faux macho men, is also the 12th most populous state per capita for lesbians. Loneliness for the wives of imprisoned prominent GOP political and industrial figures may soon influence both of those demographics in the 2010 census.
However you look at it, Alaska is the most in-flux political climate in the USA right now. The changes have more to do with local than national politics, but reflect the national trend of voter aspirations welcoming articulate and aggressive progressive candidates for local and national office. People are sick and tired of the rank hypocrisy of the far right. They should be, and the recent Alaska political scandals are a case in point.
We’re also paying close scrutiny here to the inexperience of the Democratic Party machine, as it struggles to take advantage of a political gusher bigger for them than was Prudhoe Bay for big oil. The Dems have been so out of power for so long, many newcomers voting-- or running, for that matter, were kids when the Dems last controlled local politics. Most voters in the next election lived in another state or were unborn when Senator Ted Stevens took office in 1972. That was 13 years after statehood and eight years after the Great Alaska Earthquake.
The GOP has controlled Alaska for a long time. The Houston crew that came with the big Prudhoe drillers brought their culture to the Arctic. Such as it is. Unfortunately for Alaska, it became the paradigm. The combination of increasingly open corruption by the oil industry through the enormous clout of providing 85% or more of the state's revenues, and the strict party discipline enforced by a machine overloaded with cynical oilmen and a fundamentalist televangelist or two, stifled all else.
But a change began to surface long before the FBI began raiding the offices of state GOP legislators at the end of August 2006. As early as 2002, former Wasilla Mayor, Sarah Palin, began building a maverick GOP political machine independent of state GOP Chairman Randy Reudrich’s organization. Palin narrowly lost a 2002 GOP lieutenant governor primary. When the 2002 gubernatorial victor, Frank Murkowski came into office in December 2002, he appointed Palin to run the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Another commission member then was state GOP party chair, Reudrich. Palin complained to the governor about Reudrich’s penchant for doing party business while collecting a state paycheck. She also was instrumental in bringing to light other ethical lapses by members of Murkowski’s administration. In January 2004, Palin resigned from the commission, and began rebuilding her organization.
Meanwhile, in 2004, Ray Metcalfe, a former GOP state representative, began investigating Ben Stevens, the son of Ted Stevens, the patron saint of Alaska. Metcalfe was already incensed at the corruption of the legislative process he had encountered as a congressman, but was even more irritated at what the unquestioned lobbying mastery here by big oil and its surrogates means for the future of Alaskans. He had already started his own party, the Republican Moderate Party, which sought to bring a higher percentage of oil wealth being extracted in Alaska into state coffers, rather than into out-of-state or out-of-country corporate profits. By mid-2004, Metcalfe was receiving tips on GOP corruption from many whistleblowers. He went to the state to complain, getting a feeble response. The media treated him as a dilettante or worse. Some now believe he then went to the FBI.
One of Frank Murkowski’s first acts as governor had been to appoint his daughter Lisa to his former U.S. Senate seat. From there, it was downhill for the next four years of his administration. He was a hapless public speaker, unable to change from the haughty tone of a D.C. Senator to that of governor of a state whose population perceives itself as friendly and approachable. His long fight to purchase an executive jet that could only land on Alaska’s few large, paved airports had already made him the butt of many jokes, when the FBI’s raids of the offices of several prominent GOP legislators and power brokers, brought his party’s corruption to national attention.
As Murkowski tried through a number of special sessions of the state legislature to pass a combination of incentives and fee adjustments that would force big oil to develop natural gas resources, but also lock up the long-term resource extraction fee structure, on the North Slope of Alaska to the advantage of big oil, the FBI was secretly video- and audio-taping hundreds of hours of conversations between Alaska politicians and oil industry lobbyists. The FBI brought in special investigators from all over the country, preferring to keep the Anchorage FBI office as far out of the loop as possible.
The FBI stings have so far brought five known convictions, either from pleas or from criminal trials. One more trial, of former State Representative Bruce Weyrauch, is scheduled for 2008. Testimony in the trials of former legislators Tim Anderson, Pete Kott, and Vic Kohring has revealed that ex-Veco executives Rick Smith and Bill Allen, plead to bribing former State Senator Ben Stevens (son of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, current State Senator John Cowdery, and Senator Stevens himself. Rumors that other legislators, political appointees of former governor Murkowski, and oil industry lobbyists will be indicted, are rampant.
Senator Stevens and U.S. Representative Don Young have both issued statements to the effect that they are under Federal investigation. And, they’re both up for re-election in 2008 Young has attracted challengers, where-– so far, at least-– Sen. Stevens has not.
2006 was a watershed year for change in Alaska politics. At the same time the FBI was taping legislators and lobbyists exchanging bribes for votes in the special sessions, Governor Frank Murkowski was conducting a GOP primary campaign that has gone down in Alaska political annals as the most inept on record. That took some doing. He came in third, just above the write-ins for Hugo Chavez and Homer Simpson.
Sarah Palin’s populist organization brought together her old base in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, expanded on that in Southcentral and Interior Alaska, and tapped into resentments about Juneau-based politics, and a need to clean house. Her November challenger, former Democratic Party Governor, Tony Knowles, had only his undistinguished eight years in Juneau, from 1994 to 2002, to run on.
Palin beat Knowles handily in a three-way race. Having narrowly lost a 2004 bid to unseat U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, Knowles’ political career is largely seen here as over. For instance, Knowles, who spent $1.1 million to Sarah Palin’s $880,000 in the gubernatorial general campaign, garnered just over 97,000 votes. Diane Benson, running against Don Young for Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat, received about 94,000 votes statewide, while spending $192,000 to Young’s $2 million in the campaign.
Benson was initially impelled to run for the seat Young has held since 1972 in early 2006, after Alaska Democratic Party chairman Jake Metcalfe had been unsuccessful in persuading any of Alaska’s leading Democrats to file for the race. Benson’s son, Latseen, an airborne infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division, had been severely injured near Kirkuk in November 2005, during his third tour. Young’s refusal to visit her son or other wounded Alaskan soldiers while hospitalized at Washington D.C.’s Walter Reed Hospital was the last straw.
Since the 2006 race, Benson has extended her contacts with the Wounded Warrior network, with Veterans groups, with military families, and with Native American organizations in Alaska, and nationwide. She has also remained highly critical of Don Young's conduct in the U.S. House, calling for an ethics investigation by that legislative body, of his conduct during the passage of the 2005 U.S. transportation bill. She knew, before deciding to run again in 2008, that she would face serious primary challengers.
Two other challengers have entered the Democratic primary race for Young’s seat. Former State Democratic Party chair Jake Metcalfe whose support for Diane Benson in 2006 was tepid, filed from Washington, D.C. the first week of August. Former State House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, who, like Benson, has been highly critical of the ethical lapses of Alaska politicians, filed on October 1. Both Berkowitz's and Benson's campaigns have recently released polls showing their candidates beating Young in a general election. Berkowitz’s poll, especially its claim that Berkowitz would soundly beat Benson in the primary, is tainted by the unabashed direct links between pollster and candidate.
A three-way Democratic primary race for Young’s seat by a group of credible, fairly liberal candidates is unprecedented in Alaska. The primary isn’t until late August, but it is likely that the winner will emerge as Alaska’s next member of the U.S. House, as Young seems determined to try to hold on until the FBI frog-marches him out of his animal head-adorned DC lair Besides, indications are that he's spending more money on attorneys than his campaign is taking in. If things don’t improve for the out-of-power, increasingly discredited, foul-mouthed relic from his own largely mythical past, he’ll be out of money by mid-July.
Anchorage mayor Mark Begich, who visited Washington D.C. last January at the behest of organizations interested in his candidacy for Young's seat, passed on running against Young. Many observers here are wondering why Begich is waiting so long to declare his candidacy for Ted Stevens’ seat. I've speculated that Begich's hesitancy is based on a genuine fear that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin will declare her candidacy against Stevens. But I'm beginning to doubt that she will do that. As a friend told me last night, "She's having way too much fun right now as Gov." But if Mark Begich waits until after the inevitable indictment of Ben Stevens by the Feds, he'll appear to be a shameless opportunist.
It has been interesting watching Alaska’s mainstream media trying to cover the corruption trial of GOP ex-state legislator Vic Kohring in Anchorage, as Sarah Palin also convened her first-ever special session of the legislature in Juneau. Journalistic resources were sorely stretched.
The session was to rewrite the corruption-tainted oil extraction fee legislation from August 2006. Even though lobbyists from the most thoroughly despised big oil company in Alaska, Exxon, openly sought to change legislation in congressional offices, they failed to have an impact on the governor’s relentless, behind-the-scenes pressure on what is likely to be a new legislative coalition when the state house and senate convene in January. The session ended up in the most remarkable victory by an Alaska politician in the state’s history, with the enactment of the highest extraction fee for petroleum products from State land, in our history. The new fee schedule will bring in billions of dollars. It was Palin's triumph. She was already the most popular governor in the USA.
Local elections in 2006 and 2007 have indicated a growing distrust of vacuous promises by wingnut candidates, or for wingnut-sponsored initiatives. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and its rapidly growing suburban areas around and between Palmer and Wasilla, one of the most conservative regions in Alaska, has seen a succession of liberal and moderate victories at school board, borough assembly and city council levels. Most recently, the Mat-Su Valley electrical co-op, Matanuska Electrical Association, withdrew plans to erect a huge coal-fired power plant south of Palmer. It would have been the first man-made object people would see as they crossed one of the most scenic and inspiring river valleys in the world. Attempts by the utility to sell the idea of the plant and its projected pollution as clean coal failed to resonate as local activists joined to educate the public.
Soon after the 2008 Alaska legislative session opens, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the class-action lawsuit filed against Exxon in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It has been wending its way through the courts since my son, who is now in college, was a toddler. Over a thousand plaintiffs have died, some by their own hands, waiting for this settlement.
When the Supreme Court decided to take the case, Governor Palin called the news “a kick to the guts” of all Alaskans. Last week the three Democratic party candidates for Don Young’s U.S. House seat provided statements to me regarding their support of the governor’s statement, and of the state’s notice it will be filing an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs, and against Exxon’s position.
Diane Benson, supporting the governor, noted “Governor Palin has called this case “a kick in the guts” to Alaskans. She almost got it right. What Exxon did to us, to our fishers and coastal residents, rhymes with “a kick in the guts,” but was an even lower blow. To use a maritime law term-- we’ve been Shanghaied. "
Ethan Berkowitz stated “It’s too bad that we’re no longer surprised when Exxon has the audacity to lobby our legislators in Juneau for tax fairness, stall in the D.C. courts and leave Alaska twisting in the tide. The Palin Administration did the right thing filing a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the state and making sure Alaska stands up to Exxon.”
Jake Metcalfe, in spite of my request that he specifically endorse the governor’s position, failed to mention Palin, who is unpopular in Southeast Alaska, Metcalfe’s bastion. He said “Exxon should do the right thing and pay the plaintiffs now. That said, I'm confident the judicial branch of our government will do the right thing in the end.”
Benson isn’t so sure about this Supreme Court, commenting, “for the focus of this case to now shift, at the Supreme Court level, to an archaic maritime law case, that of the privateer Scourge, in the aftermath of the War of 1812, is almost beyond words. I’m concerned about this intersection of Exxon’s cynical defense and George Bush’s corporation-friendly Court.”
One thing is sure for 2008 in Alaska. It will be the most important election here since 1994, when-- like many other parts of he USA-- the selfish, consciously deceitful Gingrich agenda was foisted on us, and true conservatism, moderation, and liberalism were all subordinated to a mean-spirited me first modality.