A Tale With Backbone
It’s story time! I know we haven’t had Mudflats story time in a long while now, but things get busy, and life gets complicated, and sometimes we forget. But right now, it’s time to snuggle in, because I’m going to tell you an important story – a story with heroes, and villains, and big dreams, and treasure. Lots and lots of treasure. It’s a story that started a long time ago, and it’s also a story that has no ending yet, because the ending hasn’t been written. It’s going to be up to all of you to decide how it turns out, and if the good people in our little village live happily ever after, or not. It will be up to Alaskans this time, but it’s a story for everyone, even you in far off lands.
(We snuggle in, and I put on my reading glasses. I ask you if you are ready, and you smile, and nod and close your eyes, so you can better imagine the scene I’m about to lay before you…)
Chapter One – Long Ago, at the Top of the World
Once upon a time, in a remote and frosty outpost on the top of the world, there lived a village of people. They were brave people. They were adventurers, and risk takers who worked hard in a hard place, and they knew the importance of banding together. There weren’t many of them, but they were cut from tough cloth. Some had been there for thousands of years; others were newer. But they battled the elements, the long distances, the lack of infrastructure, and communication, and many of the nice things that others in the rest of the kingdom took for granted. It was hard, but they liked it way up there. They loved the mountains and the rivers and the fish. They loved the wide open spaces, and the freedom and possibility this great land afforded, and they wouldn’t trade it for anything.
And then, one day, they made a great discovery way up in the north. Oil -lots of oil. Lots, and lots, and LOTS of oil! The people got very excited, because this oil didn’t belong to the person who found it, and it didn’t belong to someone who owned the piece of land. It belonged to everyone in the village! They knew this because the village had a document called a Constitution that said so. It said that the resources belonged to the villagers, and that the rule was that the oil had to be developed to benefit the village above all else. This way, the village could have the things it wanted, like good schools to educate the little villagers, and roads to make it easier to travel in this rough land, bridges to cross canyons and gullies, and all sorts of things to make life better, and easier. It would make it so that the children could stay, and become educated, and start businesses, and be successful, and live with their families forever in this wonderful, special land. You can imagine how excited everyone was. The village was a-buzz! But there was one problem. The problem was that nobody knew exactly how to get their new-found treasure out of the ground. It was complicated. Nobody had the special equipment, or the knowledge of how to do it. They needed help.
So they explained to the Outside world that they’d found a treasure, but couldn’t get at it. All of a sudden, strange visitors started arriving, and they were a little different. They came from Outside, and they were there to help. They wore suits and ties, and expensive shoes and they had lots of money. These were some of the most powerful people not just in the village, or even in the kingdom itself, but in the whole wide world! The people were a little intimidated, but they knew they needed partners if they wanted to figure it out, and get nice things and make their place better. The new people were very interested in helping the village to get their oil out of the ground, because, of course, it wasn’t doing anyone any good THERE, and the Constitution said that it was up to the village to make wise decisions and decide what was best for everyone. It was their oil, after all.
And so the leaders of the village picked some of the helpers who had lots of worldly experience getting oil out of the ground and selling it for money. But soon something happened. Two of the helpers, called BP and ARCO decided to “merge.” And the village was unsettled. Because way back then, what that meant was that there would be only big helper that pretty much ran the show. This made the wise elders of the village nervous, as well it should have. Because this was called a “monopoly” and most stories that have monopolies in them, do NOT have happy endings. They remembered the Constitution, and that it was up to them to make sure that their oil was developed in the best way possible. A monopoly was not it.
And so the elders got together, and with the help of the wider kingdom, decided to try to stop it, because it was a very bad thing, and would only mean disaster for the people who were starting to become a little bit overwhelmed by all this sudden wealth and attention. The adventurous pioneers now had to become businesspeople, and they had to think about things they’d never had to think about before. They wanted to be sure they did everything right.
Just like any group of people, the elders didn’t agree on everything. Some of them liked to wear red shirts, and some of them liked to wear blue shirts, and some of them didn’t like either kind. So the elders decided it was time to forget their other differences, put on their capes, and summon up their pioneering, brave, and wild superpowers to put things right. A great and historic battle ensued, and everyone watched, breathless – wondering how the village elders would fare against the giant oil superpower. Pow! Bam! Kaboom! Great clouds of dust were raised, and after a long time had passed, you’ll never guess what. If you think that power and money always win, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise. When it all settled out, the village won. They really did. And the crowds cheered, and the wise elders rode on the shoulders of the villagers through the streets.
(You probably know some of these names from your history books – Governors Walter Hickel, Jay Hammond and Steve Cowper; David Gottstein, Malcolm Roberts, Christie McGraw, Senate Presidents Chancy Croft, and Rick Halford, Constitutional Convention Delegate Vic Fischer and Secretary Katie Hurley, former Commerce Commissioner Paul Fuhs, businessmen Dale Lindsay, Barney Gottstein, Wayne Lewis, Jeff Lowenfels, former Mayor Jack Roderick, Mayor Jim Whitaker, multi-faceted Walt Parker, activist Mike Macy, Mead Treadwell, and dozens more.)
There was much rejoicing because it’s always nice when the good guys win, especially when the odds are against them.
When it was all done, there ended up being three Big helpers, not just one. And they were Conoco, BP, and Exxon, and they became known as The Big Three. And even though they were big and rich and powerful, they were no match for our heroes, who became known as “the Backbone Group,” because boy did they have it. And the people learned that sometimes having Backbone means more than having a lot of money.
Backbone went on to support other things like a big pipeline for gas to help the village, and they added some more wise people like Bill Walker, and Mike Kenny, and Bob Morigeau, and Merrick Pierce.
For now, the village was safe, and many years passed. Some of the Backbone group passed into history, but their names were remembered with reverence, and their stories were told. And everyone remembered how special the village was, because they owned their own oil. And they remembered what Walter Hickel had said:
“Our future depends on learning to use and develop the commons for the good of the total, and not just for the few. We have developed a new way to prosperity based on common ownership and rooted in constitutional democracy.”
And the capes were folded and put carefully away in trunks and wardrobes, and boxes. And the great north land marched on, taking the money from their oil, and paying their helpers who got it out of the ground for them, and using the money to build bridges, and roads, and schools, and to save some for the future when the oil would be gone. Because as much as the village didn’t want to think about it, the oil was a “finite resource” and that meant that no matter how hard they wished, it wouldn’t last forever. So, they had to be very very careful.
Chapter Two – The big tug o’ war
As the years passed, the helpers wanted more and more of the money. Some of the villagers started thinking that the Big 3 might have started to forget that the oil didn’t belong to them. And at the same time, other things started to change way up north. The easy oil on top was starting to run low, and it was going to take a little more work to get the rest of the deeper oil out of the ground. It would be harder to do. The Big 3 didn’t really like that idea, and they knew there were other, smaller helpers around the world who would come in and take over to do the harder work. But The Big 3 wanted to make sure they got as much money as they could before they left. That way, they’d be able to take all that money and go find other places in the world to get oil out of the ground. It takes money to make money, they said. And they called the village a “cash cow.”
The Big 3 weren’t mean, and they didn’t hate the village, but they didn’t have a Constitution like the village did. They had something else. You see, just like the job of the elders was to make sure that the villagers’ oil was developed “for the maximum benefit of the people,” the Big Three’s job was to make sure that the oil was developed for “the maximum benefit of the shareholders.” You can see right away where this could cause a mighty tug o’ war, because “the people” and “the shareholders” are two very different things, and doing the best thing for one is not the same as doing the best thing for the other.
This meant that even though the villagers and the Big 3 were partners, and each one needed the other, they each had very different rules.
And so the Big Three decided that it was time to make a plan, because they were used to getting their way, and they were used to getting a lot of money. If they could just figure out how to make the village legislature do what they wanted, then it would all work out for the shareholders, and they’d have lots of money to go mess around in other parts of the world. One of the Big Three pointed out that the governor of the village actually used to work for them. And then one of the other Big Three said, “Hey, he did work for us too!” And the plan began to hatch. All it would take would be the governor and enough legislators to make a bill for the Big 3 and vote to pass it.
And so, one day the governor was in a meeting for a long time. Then, he popped out of a pair of double doors. It was dark inside, and filled with smoke. The governor decided to make an announcement to the people. And so he stepped out on to a big balcony overlooking the town square, and after the trumpets had stopped, and a hush had fallen, the governor spoke. “It appears as though we’re having some problems filling up our pipeline, and we don’t seem to have as much oil as we used to…” The Big Three were inside, just out of view of the crowd. They nodded, and looked at each other expectantly as they crouched, straining to hear. “And so we all know what that means. It means we need more oil!”
“More oil! More oil! More oil!” the crowd chanted. Because they knew that more oil was good, and that they’d gotten lots of nice things from their oil, and they wanted more nice things to come, because they still had a long way to go.
“And so to get more oil, I have created a plan!” proclaimed the governor, puffing out his chest a little.
“A plan! A plan!” cheered the people.
“My plan is this: We will take the money that we have made from this oil, and we will give it back to the oil companies! And this will please them, and they will stay, and they will make more oil!”
“Hooray!” said the crowd. “How much?!” called a voice.
The governor smiled sort of a plastic smile, and pointed at the voice. “The amount shall be TWO BILLION DOLLARS!”
The crowd gasped, as the governor continued, “…. TWO BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR!”
At that point, I have to tell you, there was a hush. You could almost hear the villagers thinking. And I’ll tell you what they were thinking. They were thinking, “That’s a lot of money! That could build a lot of things, and educate a lot of children, and pay for a lot of stuff we need. I can’t even imagine what we’ll get in return for that! If the governor is working for the maximum benefit of the people, and we’re going to give the Big 3 that much money, then what we get in return is going to be HUGE!”
“What will we get in return?! What have they promised?!” Are we getting more jobs?” The calls sprang forth from the crowd.
But the governor was gone. While everyone had been busy thinking, he had slipped back inside, and shut the doors to the balcony. The Big Three stood up from their crouching places, and told the governor he’d done just fine, and there was lots of back-slapping. This was going to be easy.
Left behind on the balcony, and barely noticed before, was a man, red-faced and a little sweaty. He was called a “minion” and he worked for the governor. He was the one left standing there while the villagers called out their questions.
“I will meet with the village Senate!” the minion finally croaked out, as he loosened the neck of his shirt. “And I will explain everything.”
“How many jobs? How many jobs?….” The chant was relentless. The minion swallowed hard, and scurried off the balcony and down the back stairs to meet with the Senate.
The Senate had lots of questions. This was a pretty big deal, and they wanted to make sure they did what they were supposed to do. They’d all agreed to follow the Constitution, and they’d gone through a whole ceremony promising to do what it said. It was called an “oath” and if they hadn’t taken it, they wouldn’t be allowed to be in the Senate in the first place.
So the Great Hall was prepared, and the greater and lesser minions took their seats at the long shiny table, and the Senators filed in one by one.
Just like the elders of long ago, the Senators didn’t always agree. In fact, they disagreed on lots of things, but when the people had voted, they’d been faced with a dilemma. The ones that liked to wear red shirts in the Senate had gotten 10 members. The ones who liked to wear the blue shirts in the Senate had also gotten 10 members. It was a tie. This was a puzzle. After puzzling long and hard, they came up with an idea – they could try working together. You may remember from Chapter One, that this had worked before when the Backbone Group realized they were all, first and foremost, members of the same village and should act like it. The Senators had all taken the oath, and the people expected them to follow it. They had things to accomplish, and people to represent! So, they stiffened their own backbones and decided to get together for the good of the people.
16 out of the 20 Senators thought this was a great idea. But there were four members in red shirts that decided they didn’t want to play.
“Work TOGETHER? With THEM? Never! We will not.” And they all crossed their arms over their chests, and crinkled their noses.
“I would rather go in the other room and take a rest while you deal with this,” said John Coghill as he slumped off.
“I don’t like people with blue shirts, and I’m not talking to them,” Charlie Huggins snorted, turning tail and stalking away.
“Working with others would compromise my principles of not working with people I disagree with!” said Cathy Giessel tossing her head, and grabbing her clipboard, as she stomped out.
Fred Dyson stared. “Well… I’ve been here a long time. And I haven’t worked with anyone for years. The people who elect me don’t seem to mind that I’m not doing anything, so I’m certainly not going to start now. I’ll be in the gym.” And off he went too.
The sixteen remaining members looked at each other, rolled their eyes, rolled up their sleeves and decided to get to work. The people had questions, and there were some serious questions to be asked. So they sat down with the minions, and started asking.
Chapter Three – The terrible meeting
“So, how many jobs will we get, exactly?” asked Gary Stevens.
“As many as they want to give us!” said the minion, eagerly. “Does anyone else have a question?”
“Do we have any guarantees people will get jobs?” asked Hollis French.
The minion squiggled in his seat. “Well, not a “guarantee,” per se… But I bet they will give us some.”
“Well, what about more oil in the pipeline? We all want that. How much more oil will we get in the pipeline for $2 billion a year?” asked Lesil McGuire.
“I’m sure there will be more oil. The Big Three say they feel really good about that. They just want the money first. And then we’ll see how it goes.”
“Well, they’re certainly going to promise to LOOK for more oil, aren’t they? More drilling? Some increased exploration, yes?” Joe Paskvan looked over the top of his glasses at the minion, who was now beginning to drink water compulsively from a styrofoam cup.
“See, the thing is, they haven’t actually promised, but if you’ll just give them the money …”
“OK. Let me get this straight,” Bill Wielechowski, rubbed his temples. “You’re saying that you want us to give away $2 billion a year, but that we’re not getting anything back for it?”
“I didn’t say that exactly…” The minion’s breathing was becoming irregular, and little droplets of sweat had begun rolling down his cheeks. “I mean, the governor thinks this is a good idea, right? And who doesn’t think that the best way to enter into a business transaction is to first give the other party a lot of money to incentivize them, and then rely on their good will?”
A pencil snapped. “I don’t! I don’t think that’s the best way at all!” growled Burt Stedman who’d been watching and listening. “They are supposed to work for their shareholders, not us. HOW will this be good for us, exactly?”
“Because… The Big Three will be happy… and happy… corporations… do nice things for other people. Because they are nice… and happy!” The minion refilled the Styrofoam cup. “I’ll go ask them to explain it to me again.”
“Ask THEM to explain it to you? Aren’t you supposed to be working for the village, and not the Big 3?” Bill Wielechowski asked.
“This sounds like a half-baked plan,” said Lesil McGuire.
“These numbers don’t make sense,” said Burt Stedman, shaking a piece of paper.
“You are not even prepared for these questions,” said Joe Paskvan.
“Where exactly do you want us to take this money from?” asked Hollis French.
“I think the village deserves some accountability,” said Bill Wielechowski.
Gary Stevens just looked at the minion, with a look that would peel paint. And that was enough.
The minion stood up, and went away to go get answers, he said. And he told the governor what had happened, and that the Senate hadn’t liked his plan very much, and that it needed to be fixed.
“I’ll fix THEM,” said the governor, and hastily made another proclamation. “I don’t like all these questions! I’m taking my minion and going home. The meeting is OVER! I shall wait for the election in November, and all these question-askers will be voted out of office! I’ll see to it. And then the four Senators who don’t want to play will come back, and everyone will do what I want!”
The governor was so loud, his voice could be heard all the way from the hall. The Senators looked at each other in amazement that the governor had actually said these things. How did HE know how the election was going to turn out? What was he going to do to them?
Chapter Four – Meanwhile, far, far away
Meanwhile, far, far away, in a big glass building on the other side of the kingdom, and in other glass buildings in kingdoms on the other side of the world, The Big Three started stacking up piles of money, and writing checks. They started talking to people who could work hard to make the Senators lose their elections. The governor started talking to the Senators, and their challengers, and dreamed of banishing the Senators who stuck to their oaths, working for the maximum benefit the people and not giving him his way by sending the villagers’ treasure to the big glass buildings where they already had plenty of treasure to begin with.
The village was in trouble, and most of the people didn’t even know it. Everywhere around the land, big signs went up, and flyers arrived on doorknobs, and barkers showed up on all the street corners and they started saying, “Alaska is closed for business!” “The Cooperators must be stopped!” “If we don’t hand over the money, the Big 3 will leave us!” “The Cooperators hate the Village!” “The end of the world is nigh!”
And the people of the village began to be afraid that maybe these things were true. Because people with enough money, and enough signs, can make you afraid, especially when you are busy with other things, and don’t have time to pay attention.
But some people were paying attention, and they knew that all those signs and flyers came from the glass buildings. And all the barkers on the street corners were getting presents from the Big Three. If the village didn’t do something, they would lose their Senate heroes, and be stuck with ones who agreed to give away all the treasure for nothing! There would be nobody left to safeguard their future. The coffers would be cleaned out, and the Big 3 would take the gold and be off to other lands to find other oil.
Chapter Five – How it all turns out
The villagers who were paying attention would gather in pubs, and on street corners, and at their places of work, and they’d commiserate. One evening, a group of them gathered at the local pub. “Remember Backbone?” someone who looked a lot like me asked wistfully. “I wonder where they went? I bet if they knew what trouble we were in, they’d rummage around and find their capes, and help us. They did it before… Remember?” Heads nodded, and sighs were heaved, and the group, looking a big hangdog, drank their ales thoughtfully.
And I have to tell you, what happened next was one of those moments where the timing of everything couldn’t have been more perfect if you’d written it in a story. Just at that very moment, the door to the pub swung open and clapped against the wall. Necks swiveled, and everyone stared. “They’re back!” said a breathless lad who looked like he’d run the whole length of the village to deliver the news. He bent over, panting with his hands on his knees. “Backbone! They’ve come back!” He held out a notice. “They’re going to be speaking in the Square!” The mood went from glum to giddy in the blink of an eye. Glasses were raised, foam flew, cheers erupted – there was even hugging. It was quite a scene! And before you could say “It’s our oil” the whole crowd had abandoned their seats, and were on the way.
They arrived just in time. Standing in the middle of the square, capes fluttering in the breeze, heads held high, and spirits buoyed by the cheering of the crowd was The Backbone Group, a little older and wiser, but ready to go to battle.
“The village comes first!” shouted Malcolm Roberts.
“Village first! Village first!” came the echoed cheers. The air was vibrating. “It’s time again to stand up! Three cheers for the Senate coalition!”
“Gambling two billion dollars a year? It’s folly!” cried David Gottstein. “We’re saddling up again!”
“We are an owner state! Let’s not get owned!” Bill Walker pumped his fist in the air, and you could have cut the excitement of the crowd with a knife.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Malcolm Roberts. “We’re going to need all of you! Go and tell the rest of the village. Remind them of the old stories – the owner state, how we came together, how we fought together, how we saved the village before! Tell them not to believe the signs. Tell them to learn, and spread their knowledge!”
“Who’s got Backbone?!” David Gottstein’s voice carried to the very back of the crowd.
“We do! We’ve got Backbone!” And the crowd remembered what they were made of. They knew that the only way they’d come this far was by sticking together, and they would fight hard against those who wanted to tear them apart. And the crowd dispersed on a wave of optimism.
But as the days and weeks rolled on, the messages kept coming from the glass buildings. Like waves they came, one after another. And some of the villagers believed them, and others didn’t.
Then came the big day, the day the villagers would cast their votes…
(I close the book)
“Did the Senators make it? Do they save the village?” you ask, looking a little desperate.
I tell you that I don’t know if they do, or not. I remind you that at the beginning of the story I said that the end was going to be written by Alaskans, and it would be up to them.
“But the Senators who cooperate are the ones that saved the treasure! They’re the ones that care about the villagers! How can everyone not see that? They have to bring them back… they just have to.”
I tell you how sweet you are, and explain that sometimes the good guys don’t win just because they are good. Sometimes the bad guys win just because they have more fliers.
“Will it be a happy ending, do you think?” you ask me, with big sad eyes.
Well, if the villagers all get together, and they pay attention, and they don’t believe everything that they read… and if the good guys are brave and strong and can explain why they are doing what they’re doing, and if all the villagers who know the truth decide to make their voices heard, and write letters, and give what money they can to the good guys, and vote on election day, then yes… it will have a happy ending.
Because the moral of the story is that if you take off your red shirts and your blue shirts, and you wear a snazzy cape and decide to work together, then the good guys can win, even if they don’t have as much money – because they have Backbone.
You can read about all the Senate races in the village HERE. Please support good candidates with your volunteer time, your word of mouth, your social media presence, and your monetary support. It makes a difference.