Thursday, December 27, 2007

Top Ten Alaskan Political Events of 2007

1. Veco GOP State Legislative Scandals

Just as the second 2006 Special Session of the Alaska Legislature ended with multiple searches of the offices of prominent state-level GOP politicians, so the regular session of the 2007 legislature was rudely awakened by the arrests of Former House Speaker Pete Kott (R-Eagle River), former Representative Bruce Weyhrauch (R-Juneau), and then-Representative Vic Kohring (R-Wasilla) on May 4, 2007 on charges of accepting bribery and extortion related to their support of an oil extraction fee regime favored by big oil’s criminal enterprise cutout, the oilfield service company VECO Corporation. As the attorneys of those charged and the media received copies of information and charging documents, it became public that former Veco CEO Bill Allen and CFO Rick Smith had plead guilty to bribing them.

As the trials of lobbyist Tim Anderson, and legislators Kott and Kohring unfolded, details emerged about aspects of the FBI sting which also touched upon U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and his son Ben, former President of the Alaska Senate. Details also emerged about the extent Veco was involved in questionable or illegal funding of other Alaska politicians. Information about illegally funded polls on behalf of several GOP legislators is being held back in part, because of Federal Department of Justice concerns about influencing ongoing investigations of other state and Federal-level politicians.

2. Governor Sarah Palin Shakes Up Alaska, But Makes Less of an Impression Outside - at Least on Her Party's Leaders

Governor Palin’s ascent from the Wasilla Planning Commission to Alaska Governor took fourteen years. She began getting recognition after beating Wasilla’s popular and effective Mayor, John Stein. Her two terms there saw her mature from a fairly doctrinaire conservative to pragmatic populist. After narrowly losing a GOP Lieutenant Governor Primary to Loren Lehman in 2002, she was hired by Gov. Frank Murkowski to run the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Murkowski probably hoped to rope Palin into a dependancy upon the longstanding modus operandi of big oil corrupt practices here. The move failed, as Palin objected to a number of ethical lapses in the Murkowski machine.

What happened next was more than a little surprising. She set up a political campaign organization independent of both big oil and the GOP machine. She didn’t just beat these forces, she kicked their butt. Along the way she solidly thrashed ex-Governor Tony Knowles.

But these were the mere preliminaries to 2007. She didn’t make tremendous headway against the 2007 legislature while it was in session. Her vetoes of their budget items were quite extensive, though, shaking up the inveterate complacency of this club as they were reeling from the GOP big-oil corruption busts of their colleagues and top campaign donors.

Palin combined this momentum, hard work and charm to conclude the most effective special session in a generation.

National attention has come Palin’s way, but outsiders understand Alaskans little, and our politics even less. Even less, can lower-48 Republicans identify with somebody who can think for herself. And although blogs like Wonkette and magazines such as Vogue see Palin as a babe, Palin sees herself more as an athlete or mom. There is too much cogninitive dissonance between what outsiders want of her and what she feels is important right now, for her popularity to snowball nationally.

3. October-November Special Session Slices Gordian Knot, Brings 2008 Budget Surplus

Beyond Gov. Palin’s leadership role in the late 2007 legislative special session, the fact is that after so many unproductive sessions on the gas line’s future, some headway was made. This is very important to the future of the state. I’ve watched the big developers on the North Slope burn off enough natural gas since 1977 to fuel and heat Alaska halfway through the 22nd century. People here, or at least a majority of them, have ceased to take in big oil propaganda like they used to.

Combined with a new fee structure to be charged to big oil for their extraction of the state’s non-renewable resources, Alaska is looking at an influx of $4.7 billion during FY 2008-2009. This is a phenomenal increase, and will be a test of the coming year's legislature.

4. Eclipse of Senator Ted Stevens and His Family

Alaska is undergoing a kind of PTSD as we watch the Hulk’s image shattered, piece by piece. At first - a couple of years ago - it seemed his unworthy son was what was bringing him down. But, as more information emerges, it is becoming more apparent he set young Ben up for the fall through diversions of numerous earmarks into the North Pacific Fisheries management regime, for which the elder Stevens was largely responsible.

Ted says he’s in it for 2008, and has filed.

5. Representative Don Young’s Demise Draws Three Credible Challengers

In 2006, the Alaska Democratic Party wanly searched for an opponent to Representative Don Young. Party Chairman Jake Metcalfe didn’t see how anybody could win, and wanted to funnel every available penny into Tony Knowles’ gubernatorial campaign.

Military mom and anti-war activist Diane Benson filed, won the Democratic Primary, and conducted a grassroots campaign that got Young’s and Alaskans’ attention. After she lost, she told me, “You know it’s going to be more crowded next year, don’t you, Phil?”

She was right. She predicted that Ethan Berkowitz or Eric Croft would file for the seat by the end of Autumn, 2007. Many were surprised, though, when Chairman Metcalfe left his post on a Friday in late July to file and announce for Young’s seat from Washington, DC, early the following week.

Benson, Berkowitz and Metcalfe are all viable challengers and any of the three will be a vast improvement. The three candidates have probably raised over $300,000 so far, more than all Democratic challengers in the general election against Young raised between 1996 and 2004. And this is money for the primary.

Polls show Berkowitz and Benson handily beating Young. Both Bekowitz and Benson's polls show Berkowitz leading for the primary, but not by enough to be a predictor. This is largely because the Alaska Democratic primary is open to any registered voter. The GOP primary is open only to registered Republicans. Just who the final GOP candidates on the primary ticket are will be a determining factor in how tens of thousands of voters choose which of two ballots to pick. Nor is Berkowitz's lead a cinch for him to hold.

6. Progressives and Liberals Continue to Make Inroads on GOP Footholds

This was already evident in 2006, when the Democrats made gains in state legislative contests. There will be more victories for them in 2008.

But in many local government elections, moderates and progressives are winning against candidates from the far right. Candidates are winning, but issues and initiatives are being used differently in election campaigns than in previous years. Recent ballot initiatives - one taxing the cruise ship industry being the most visible and important - show that even when industries outspend grassroots organizations by vast amounts, an industry can’t necessarily buy what it wants.

The Matanuska-Susitna Valley, home of Sarah Palin’s rise, is perhaps the most rapidly changing political environment in this most politically in-flux state in the USA right now. Moderates and progressives made solid gains in 2006 and 2007 in local government. Resistance to the local electrical co-op’s unwise plan to build a very large coal-fired plant has fueled resentment against the power politics unsuccessfully played by the prominent Republicans who backed the plan.

7. Randy Ruedrich Retains GOP Chair in Spite of Ineffectiveness

The day after Sarah Palin won the 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary, Randy Reudrich sent current State Senate President Lyda Green to Palin’s house with a huge wad of campaign money from Reudrich’s well-greased big oil machine. Palin refused the money. She has since asked for Reudrich to step down. There is a lot personal going on here, but Palin was right. Progressives can only hope that Randy, who has become almost totally ineffective, stays the course right through the 2008 election. He’ll undoubtedly be one the keys to our victories.

8. State Democratic Party Slowly Undertakes Rebuilding Challenge

Absent the GOP shooting themselves in the foot by backing candidates like John Lindauer until it was way too late - thanks Rev. Prevo! - and other such hilarious moments, the Democrats have not won statewide office here since 1986. That was before my daughter, who is a senior in college, was born. They haven't won national office from Alaska since 1974.

If they intend on relying on old methods from the 70s and 80s, they will fail. If they run wan campaigns or DLC-modeled ones that avoid issues which resonate with the majority of Alaskans who are non-partisan, they’ll get nowhere. If they feud and bicker and scare young people and Greens away, they’ll remain a minority in the legislature. If they fail to take the opportunities presented by current and future indictments of the GOP power base, they’re not just fools, they’ll be regarded as hopeless ones at that.

9. Speculation Rampant on Further GOP Arrests

This is already a 2007 story, as it has attenuated practically every move prominent Republicans have been able to make since September, 2006. Most insiders expect further indictments. Rumors have been pervasive since early October. Ray Metcalfe told me that he has been told President Bush himself tried to stop the cycle from happening back in the summer of 2006, but was faced with a discreet but profound amount of protest from Department of Justice professionals. Whether further White House meddling has slowed down the flow of indictments or not, it is quite obvious that Ben Stevens and others will be indicted soon.

10. Ray Metcalfe Vindicated

There are still skeptics, but it must be said that Metcalfe not only complained about the ethics of his former colleagues far longer than the FBI was investigating them, but that the depth and swath of his concerns have benefitted the people of Alaska. The more I research his activities over the past fifteen years, the more respect for his doggedness I’m gaining. Whether it was his early concern about the fee structures we charge big oil for taking our minerals, reforming the state’s political primary system, or going to agency after agency, media outlet after media outlet - all the while being treated like a gadlfy at best, a pariah at worst, Metcalfe has shown genuine endurance, courage and integrity throughout his efforts.

Update: I've posted a slightly different version of this, with about 30 hyperlinks attached, over at DailyKos.

Vic Kohring cuffed - Brian Wallace

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