FAIRBANKS - Even for those who lived through it, the past decade in Alaskan politics has been truly mercurial.
One needs a scorecard to keep track of the foibles of Frank Murkowski and his appointees, the bribery trials of state legislators, and the brutal fall of VECO head Bill Allen. Then there’s the felony conviction, election defeat, subsequent absolution and unexpected death of Sen. Ted Stevens. Alaskans also weathered the insurgent senatorial campaign of Joe Miller that resulted in the unlikely restoration of the Murkowski name. And let’s not forget (even if we wish we could) the saga of Sarah Palin, who went from freshfaced reformer to beloved governor to widely despised quitter in just three years.
It’s been a heck of a ride, the lone constant being repeated promises of a mythical natural gas pipeline that would reinvigorate the state’s economy if only someone — anyone — could get it built.
Making sense of it all and determining whether Alaskans are capable of salvaging their state from its current morass is the job Amanda Coyne and Tony Hopfinger, co-founders of the online news site Alaska Dispatch, have taken on with “Crude Awakening.” This unpleasant but much needed assessment comes at a vital time.
As the book makes obvious, the easy life Alaskans have enjoyed for decades thanks to oil and federal money is over. If we don’t get our collective act together, we’re looking at an impoverished future.
Coyne and Hopfinger start by explaining how the framers of Alaska’s Constitution gave collective ownership of the state’s resources to residents and directed the government to manage them for the maximum benefit of everyone. Although conservatives are loathe to admit it, this was socialistic, and, for both good and bad, it’s what rescued Alaska from the economic doldrums it experienced in the early years after statehood.
The discovery of an elephant oil field in Prudhoe Bay in the ‘60s meant that money could literally be pumped from the ground and the state no longer had to worry about meeting its obligations. The authors detail the heady early days of the oil boom in Alaska, with particular attention to decisions made during the Wally Hickel and Jay Hammond administrations.
Within a few years of oil’s arrival at the port of Valdez, the personal income tax had been abolished, Alaskans were collecting annual checks from the Permanent Fund and everyone was awash in cash.
The short-term results of funding government with oil money was an ongoing effort to draw more tax revenues out of the petroleum companies and a love-hate relationship between Alaskans and the industry that pays our way. The longer term concern, one that hasn’t fully materialized yet, is that the oil will eventually run out and Alaskans who have grown used to a plethora of government services they’ve never paid for will be left holding the bill.
It’s against this backdrop that Coyne and Hopfinger detail the rise of three Alaskans — Ted Stevens, Bill Allen and Sarah Palin — and explain how Alaska’s schizophrenic politics made all of them possible.
Stevens, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was instrumental in Alaska’s battle for statehood. After being appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1968, he embarked on a 40-year career of shoveling as much money as he could back to his home state.
While much of it was needed for crucial development, particularly early on, the long-term effect was to make a state whose residents pride themselves on their contempt for Washington, D.C., completely reliant on federal money to keep their economy humming. Allen was a grade-school drop out who went to work in Prudhoe Bay, built VECO into a global powerhouse in the oil field services industry, became one of Stevens’ best friends, kept close company with a string of teenaged prostitutes and held control over numerous members of the state Legislature. He used various means, including bribery, to advance the oil industry’s interests. Palin was a child of Alaska’s boom years who came of age viewing the state’s raw materials as public property, the oil companies as the state’s natural opponents, and the free ride paid for with resource revenues as the God-given birthright of every Alaskan. Consequently, during her brief tenure in office, the woman who has since become the darling of American conservatives governed the state as a socialist, going so far as to pass the largest tax increase in state history on oil producers and to hand out bonus checks to every resident. Along with punitive taxes, she also pushed through a gas line act so anti-industry that it virtually assured the pipeline wouldn’t get built.
How these three larger-than-life characters played with and against each other and fellow officials and leaders, as well as the ways they were embraced and then rejected by Alaskans, is a story far too long and complex to summarize here. Suffice to say that Coyne and Hopfinger have done an expert job of tying together the various strands of recent Alaska political history, showing how different events — some seemingly unrelated — have left the state with dwindling income, residents unprepared to shoulder the costs of government, few existent possibilities for fixing the mess and a populace and government more concerned with maintaining the current structure than replacing it with something sustainable.
The authors are natural storytellers. Their love for Alaska and sympathy for the people they write about keep their tale from becoming a hit job. The events they explore are placed in their full context. “Crude Awakening” is unusually honest for a political book. A better examination of Alaska’s current dilemmas would be hard to find.
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.
Crude Awakening: Money, Mavericks, and Mayhem in Alaska
By Amanda Coyne and Tony Hopfinger
Nation Books • 304 pages
• 2011 • $26.99