My Twitter Feed

September 22, 2021

Voices from the Flats – Donald Craig Mitchell

The following is an op-ed by Donald Craig Mitchell, an attorney and historian who lives in Anchorage. He is the author of Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land and Take My Land Take My Life: The Story of Congress’s Historic Settlement of Alaska Native Land Claims, which in 2006 the Alaska Historical Society named as two of the most important books that have been written about Alaska.



Donald Craig Mitchell

With the world watching, two months ago in Fairbanks in front of a crowd of cheering fans and jeering Democrats Sarah Palin quit. Since then she’s been off with god’s speed to America to make her fortune, luxuriate in her celebrity, and periodically post warnings on Facebook that Barack Obama’s death panels are going to murder Baby Trig.

When Sarah departed and Sean Parnell, Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor, took over, Sean announced that he would not be a caretaker. That he will stand as a candidate for the Alaska Republican Party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2010.

Unlike Sarah Barracuda, Sean Parnell is a nice guy. He also has a family that – unlike Todd and Bristol and Willow and Levi and Trig and Tripp and Levi’s OxyContin-dealing mother Sherry and Todd’s burgling sister Diana and the other members of the Palin-Heath-Johnston tribe of ersatz celebrities – seems normal. But the reason “Captain Zero,” the nickname Alaska Congressman Don Young pasted on Sean when they ran against each other during the 2008 Alaska congressional election, stuck is that Sean is as charismatic as a four-by-eight piece of soaked sheet rock.

But if as it did in 1970 for Alaska’s first Governor by Mistake, Keith Miller, his incumbency allows Governor Parnell to raise enough money and call in enough favors to win the August 2010 Republican primary election, he will be the odds on favorite to win the November 2010 general election. And he probably wins easily. Not because he is a fiscal conservative. And not because he and his wife Sandy are God-fearing, Bible-believing paragons of community virtue. But because Sean Parnell is a Republican.

It’s as simple as that.

When it started out fifty years ago Alaska, which had only 226,000 residents, was a Navy Blue State. In 1958 Democrat Bill Egan won more than 60 percent of the vote in Alaska’s first gubernatorial election, Democrat Bob Bartlett won more than 84 percent of the vote in Alaska’s first election for the United States Senate, and Democrat Ralph Rivers won more than 57 percent of the vote in Alaska’s first election for the United States House of Representatives.

As a consequence of the in-migration into southcentral Alaska that the discovery of oil, first at Swanson River on the Kenai Peninsula, and then at Prudhoe Bay, encouraged, Alaska today has 686,000 residents and 498,000 registered voters. Only 15 percent of those voters are Democrats as opposed to 26 percent who are Republicans. And of the more than 52 percent of voters who do not belong to a political party, if they had to join one, most would become Republicans.

So, except in an aberrational circumstance, every Democratic candidate for statewide office is screwed, hosed, doomed. Democrat Mark Begich’s defeat of Republican Ted Stevens in the 2008 election for Ted’s seat in the United States Senate was an aberrational circumstance that is no exception to that rule. Because Mark Begich did not beat Ted Stevens. Ted Stevens beat Ted Stevens by demanding to go to trial prior to the election. Defeating a candidate who on election day was a convicted felon by less than 4,000 votes was not a victory for Mark Begich. It was an embarrassment for Alaska.

The Tony Knowles vote counts are more representative of the Republican advantage that, in the usual circumstance, is insurmountable.

When Wally Hickel won the 1990 Alaska gubernatorial election in a three-way race, Tony Knowles, a former mayor of Anchorage who on TV is a very pretty boy and who is a journeyman campaigner, won 30.9 percent of the vote. Arliss Sturgulewski, the official Republican candidate, and Wally Hickel, the real Republican candidate, collectively won 64.9 percent.

In the 1994 Alaska gubernatorial election Knowles won another three-way race. But not by much. 585 votes. And in winning he attracted only 41.1 percent of the vote. And even if the votes Jim Sykes, the Green Party candidate, won are added into the Knowles vote count, Tony still won only 45.2 percent.

In the 1998 Alaska gubernatorial election Knowles defeated John Lindauer, the Republican candidate, by a wide margin. But, like the Begich-Stevens election, that was an aberrational circumstance because the last month of the campaign Alaskans discovered that Lindauer was a pathological liar and sociopath whose campaign had been financed with a $1 million check that his wife said she wrote, but which may have been written by the
Chicago Outfit. And even then, in winning Tony attracted only 51.3 percent of the vote.
The 1998 gubernatorial election was as good for Alaska Democrats as good ever again likely is going to get. In 2002 Republican Frank Murkowski defeated the Democratic candidate, Fran Ulmer, who being the sitting Lieutenant Governor was a semi-incumbent and who is as pretty a girl on TV as Tony Knowles is a boy. In losing, Fran attracted only 40.7 percent of the vote; which I thought at the time was about as good as an adequately financed Democratic candidate who has decent statewide name recognition can do anymore.

Four years later Alaska voters fell in love with Sarah Palin who, rather than the Whack Job she is, seemed to be an energetic new alternative to the political culture of corruption, closed-door dealing, and self-aggrandizement that Frank Murkowski, who Sarah humiliated in the Republican primary election, and Tony Knowles, who Sarah beat in the general election, represented. In losing Tony won only 40.97 percent of the vote, which was a percentage near-identical to the percentage of the vote Fran Ulmer won in 2002.

So 41 percent of the vote, up or down a percentage point or two or three depending upon aberrational circumstance, is as much as a Democratic candidate running for statewide office in Alaska any longer can expect to win in a general election. No matter who that candidate is and no matter how well his or her campaign is financed.

That all crossed my mind this summer on the morning I heard that Alaska State Senator Hollis French had flown to Fairbanks to announce his candidacy for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. What happens, I thought, if Hollis wins the primary?

As recently as last May a Hays Research poll reported that 54 percent of Alaskans still think Sarah Palin has been the most fabulous thing to happen to the Forty-Ninth State since the abolition of the fish trap. So Hollis French, who captained the Alaska State Senate’s failed effort to bring Sarah to justice for her bad behavior in the Troopergate scandal, thinks that if he is the Democratic candidate in 2010 he is going to get more than 41 percent of the vote, even against Captain Zero? What I thought as I walked over to the Fire Island Bakery for a cup of coffee and a scone can Hollis, who is a smart guy, be thinking?

Then who did I bump into at the bakery sitting with two suits I didn’t know and to whom I was not introduced but Ethan Berkowitz, the former Democratic Minority Leader of the Alaska House of Representatives who makes no secret of the fact that he thinks he’s an even brighter guy and more skookum politician than Hollis French thinks he is.

After our ritual exchange of pleasantries, I asked Ethan if the rumor I had heard that he intends to run against Hollis in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary election possibly could be true. When Ethan said it was and I then tried to gently counsel that he would be nuts to run, Ethan, with his usual aplomb, assured me that he recently had seen some “impressive numbers.” When I asked around I later learned that those numbers likely were statewide poll numbers which show that more Alaska voters have heard of Ethan Berkowitz than they have of Hollis French or Bob Poe, the other declared candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

But of course more Alaska voters have heard of Ethan Berkowitz. Because he’s the guy who only a year ago during the 2008 Alaska congressional election spent the summer and fall traveling from Barrow to Ketchikan and back again to introduce himself to voters who, after they met him in the flesh or on TV, decided that they would rather vote for Don Young, Ethan’s crusty Republican opponent who, having barely survived being beaten in Republican primary election by, of all people, Captain Zero, the pundits had written off as political road-kill. As a consequence, Don Young did not just beat Ethan Berkowitz, who in the run-up to election day had been bragging that his victory was a signed and sealed done deal, Don humiliated him by more than 16,000 votes.

To be fair, in losing Ethan Berkowitz won 44.97 percent of the vote; which is almost four percentage points better than 41 percent. But in 2008 Don Young, the only member of Congress in United States history ever to have publicly lectured school children about butt-f**king, carried a lot of baggage that Captain Zero or whoever the Republican gubernatorial candidate is in 2010 won’t be toting.

So Ethan Berkowitz, who several days ago officially announced his candidacy, is as burnt a piece of toast as Hollis French. And for no reason other than that, like Hollis, Ethan is a Democrat.

Which leaves Bob Poe.

Bob is as nice a guy as Sean Parnell. And he is the most qualified of the candidates to run the executive branch of state government day-to-day. But unlike Hollis French and Ethan Berkowitz, Bob Poe has never run for public office, much less been elected to anything. And so far his stump speech has been: “If Alaskans elect me their Governor I will be the best Commissioner of Administration they’ve ever seen.” If Bob is elected he will be. But that’s not a “Yes We Can”-like message that inspires allegiant enthusiasm.

But if Bob Poe wins the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary election, because as of this writing no one other than a few Democrats has any idea who he is, in the general election Alaska voters who usually refuse under any and every circumstance to ever vote for a Democrat might not find out that he is one. And who knows? That may give him a shot.

For those of us in it only for the fun, a Sean Parnell versus Bob Poe contest would be as exciting to watch as the judging of the Dahlia growing competition in the 4-H Club pavilion at the Palmer State Fair. A yawner at the start. A yawner at the finish.

If I could bring him back from the dead, it would be fun to ask Alaska’s first Democratic Governor, Bill Egan, wily old pol that he was, what he thinks of such a sad state of affairs. Captain Zero versus the Commissioner of Administration. My bet is that Bill would say that the point of every election is to win. That plain. That simple. So if to have any chance of winning Bob Poe or any other Democratic candidate needs to bamboozle the electorate into forgetting that he is one, Bill would advise that candidate that he had better set about the bamboozling.



30 Responses to “Voices from the Flats – Donald Craig Mitchell”
  1. Desa Jacobsson says:

    Mr. Mitchell,
    Just for a point of clarification, I have filed a Letter of Intent to run for the Office of Governor.

    Some may ask if I am running as an Alaska Native Woman. That wouldn’t be fair, as the other candidates are not asked if they are running as Non Native Men or Women.

    However, I believe that it’s about time someone showed them how Native Women do things downtown.

    When I’m sworn in as Governor of Alaska, I intend to serve No Compromise Soup at my Inauguration. I look forward to serving the People of Alaska and I look forward to being the Best Governor Alaska Ever Had.

  2. strangelet says:

    In some respects, the historical analysis might offer Alaskan Democrats a sliver of of hope: it seems like no matter who the gubenatorial competitors are, the Democratic candidate can expect to get 41% of the vote. Now, the trick is to look at this as at least 41% of those actually voting. As I recall, turnout tends to to be in the mid-60% range, so a Democrat who can inspire 25% of the non-voters to actually vote Dem would have a shot.

    Unfortunately, what inspires the occasionally-involved to vote is not competence, or policy, but charisma. I am not generally pro-charisma, since I have none myself, and it’s just as likely to get you Palin as Obama. But it can be powerful, especially with an uncommitted electorate. Or even with a fairly committed one — I’ve lived in CA through both Ronnie and Arnold, and the state was still generally blue during both their terms.

    The reason I say “unfortunately” in this case is that so far the only Dem with any charisma is Ethan, and history seems to indicate that it is insufficient. This is not, by the way, intended to insult Bob Poe or Hollis French, both of whom appear to be outstanding, accomplished and admirable folks. Lack of charisma is not a personal failing; it’s just a characteristic, like height or hair color. But in present AK politics, lack of charisma in a Democrat probably means being doomed to 41% of the vote.

    Alaskan progressives will have to make a difficult choice, and it would be good if they make it as soon as possible (to allow for unity to be established before the general election). And the choice is (IMO): do you want the 2010 election to be a vote on principle, or a vote on electability? If you choose principle, you might support Bob, or Hollis, or Ethan, or Diane perhaps. You will almost certainly lose, unless Captain Zero screws up massively.

    If you choose electability, I think you have to unite behind Ethan, as soon as possible. I am aware from this blog and others that there is a level of opposition to him based on being a “city boy”, but over half of Alaska lives in cities, whether they want to admit it or not. He’s already got name recognition, and he has some charisma, which will become more noticeable in the general election when he will be compared to Cap 0. (Think Bush-Gore). You’ll probably still lose, but the odds will be as short as you can get next year.

    It’s a tough decision, but progressives can control it if they get to grips with it quickly. One thing about there being only 15% declared Democrats — it’s likely that almost all of you belong to the Democratic wing of the party.

  3. AK Born and Raised says:

    I volunteered on an Anchorage Assembly campaign and when making get out the vote calls to NEW voters that had attended the hugely successful Democratic Caucus they (the new voters)had no clue there was a municipal election coming up let alone who the progressive candidate was.

  4. Polly says:

    A friend mentioned that we have an untapped huge population of non-registered and non-voting ethnic communities. This could be a worthwile Dem voter registration challenge, which may get the ball rolling, maybe not in time for the next election, but future elections?

  5. Alaska Pi says:

    7 AKjah Says:
    September 10th, 2009 at 7:32 PM
    In the last 40 years we have seen the,make yer bucks and get out crowd. They dont care about the future, they only care about their prosperity. We who care about this place we call home, have a vested interest in that it all works in the future. Our children need this from us.

    Alaska is fully stuck in the “Thar’s more over the next hill, boys!” paradigm that much of western America is only beginning to think through as gone, gone, gone…
    Development to spur the economy after WWII long ago hardened into development -for-development’s -sake to the point of being some sacred shrine folks worship at…
    Here in Alaska , as through much of the west, it has the peculiar flavor of being thought an independant, self-sufficient, self-sustaining activity…PHHHT.
    For those who take their paycheck home, vote the way the AK Republican Party demands or scares them into to keep that job and paycheck I say PHHHTT…
    “Sold your soul to the company store ” is the name of that tune…

    It IS the future for our children and grandchildren which matters… it is what our true work is, neighbor- you are right about that.
    Our names , we everyday people, are really only made in the circles of our everyday lives.
    We need to do what we can to drag folks’ eyes off some faraway non-existent horizon of frontier-ness and focus on what we are handing our children… THAT is where we will make good names for ourselves.
    Mr Poe – I got to meet him briefly… and his brilliant wife. VERY impressive folks..
    Mr Rob Rosenfeld… where are you Rob? VERY impressive background of work in a variety of fields which address the here and now challenges of much of Alaska… most of which urban Alaska is ignoring…
    Whether we manage to shift the 41% thingy or not, we will have work to do.

    Mr Parnell seems to be shoring up a badly shaken ship of state… if it translates into a full term next go around, we will have to make the most of our 41% 🙂
    And , given likely loss of Legislative seats , after redistricting , soon – for the bulk of our state not concentrated in Anchorage and the valley- we better start NOW fine-tuning and amplifying what we want.

  6. I vaguely remember that of the 600 000 only half voted in the election for Governor. So about 25% of Alaskans actually voted the last Governor (I forget the name!!!!) in. I guess the Dems are checking on how to improve the voting record of Dems by making sure more of them register and actually vote.

    Referring to above remark of the Republicans taking over when oil was discovered by moving there in droves, why can´t the same be done with Dems?

  7. Say NO to Palin in Politics says:

    There is also now another little detail to factor in to political wins. Us and the internet, eh? The dems overwhelmingly won this past presidential election. If President Obama’s term goes well, dems may do well in the next elections. And we ‘may’ be able to ‘help’ influence. Just sayin.

  8. Ashkee Colorado says:


  9. Martha Unalaska Yard Sign says:

    I also like Rob Rosenthal – wonder what’s up with his campaign?

  10. InJuneau says:

    Originally, yes. I think they consider themselves Alaskans now, although there are still quite a number of Slope workers who work their “2 on” up on the Slope and go back to their homes Outside for their “2 off”.

    Not that I’m not also from Outside, but I did get moved here at 15, came back after adventures out, and am NOT an R (then again I don’t live up there in Anch. or the MadZoo either).

  11. So they are “Outsiders”…

  12. InJuneau says:

    lettersfromeurope–Yes, that’s correct; no misinterpretation there. The issue is that many of the oil field workers (and pipeline workers) came up from TX and OK and such. Make of that what you will (though Knowles was actually orig. from OK and came up to work on the pipeline too).

  13. Am I misinterpreting this (because it was not stated directly), but is there an implication that when the oil was discovered and in-migration started, the Republicans “arrived”?

  14. InJuneau says:

    Physicsmom–Andrew Halcro is going to run against Yung Don in the R primary for the US Rep. seat. Current AK Rep. Harry Crawford is, I think, the only declared D running for that seat, at least so far.

  15. AK Born and Raised says:

    My son, who is 27 and not nearly as versed in Alaska politics, has been saying this exact thing – democrats cannot be elected on a statewide basis in Alaska except under “special” circumstances.

    All three candidates lack one thing or another and to start excitement. Bob Poe and co. are too self absorbed. Hollis boring and whoever designed Hollis’ logo should be fired. Etan while he has a lot of good ideas seems to deliver them in a very bland and monotone fashion that I have heard before and tend to ignore.

    I had hoped that Andrew would run but he is self absorbed and like Poe not willing to take advise. Jerry’s ABT people are all wound up over “equal rights” and Lou’s memorial services was at the ABT– good luck beating Don in a primary.

    Don Mitchell is smack on about Alaska politics and we needed to see this in B&W.

    B&R but not sure I want to stay for my twilight years like a spawning fish swimming against the tide on a dying mission. How exhausting.

  16. AKaurora says:

    Sorry, a senior moment on my part. Mr. Mitchell, not AKM, forgot Ernest Gruening.

  17. AKaurora says:

    AKjah (7:32 PM)
    “In the last 40 years we have seen the,make yer bucks and get out crowd. They dont care about the future, they only care about their prosperity.”

    It’s the history of Alaska. First the Russians came for the furs. Seattle canneries later came for the salmon. The gold rush brought people from around the world. Only a few stayed. 1957 started the oil rush. By 1968 (pre-Prudhoe) my HS English class in Kenai had more Texan-born than Alaskan-born.

    AKM, you left out one of our greatest Dems. Ernest Gruening was Territorial Governor 1939-1953, then US Senator 1959-1969. He was one of only two Senators that voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which allowed expansion of the Vietnam War. He was also instrumental in establishing the 911 emergency number in the US. As governor he banned billboards in AK (way ahead of his time).

  18. CoyoteMarti says:

    This begs an interesting and very difficult question for Senator Begich. If this is indeed the situation on the ground, his election may be one of those fluke years where Rethug corruption and a powerful national ticket was able to push a good Dem candidate into office. Question is, will he choose a defensive “bamboozle” strategy on things like health care reform? Or will he conclude that re-election to any state-wide race is highly problematic no matter how well he performs, so he is free to vote his true conscience ? No judgements here, just that I’ve seen others wrestle with this quandry. Go big and you may go home after one term. But it could be a glorious term.

  19. michigander says:

    So….Go Bob Poe…let the bamboozling begin? Is this what I’m hearing? I really like Bob Poe but the necessity of bamboozling sucks. Hollis probably would be fine with bamboozling, not sure about Berkowitz’ Bamboozleness. My head hurts too and I have to get some sleep )o:

  20. Physicsmom says:

    Sounds like an uphill battle all the way for the Dems. From what I’ve read so far, I like Bob Poe the best, and his relative anonymity may turn out to be a plus. Comment above is the first I’ve heard about Halcro running for Congress. Which party?

    AKjah your comments were very enlightening. I think you’ve really nailed it about part-time or some-time residents controlling the legislative agenda for their own selfish interests and not that of the long-term stability or health of the state. That’s terrible and very difficult to fight. Good luck!

  21. BigSlick says:

    Based on that scenario, whoever wins the Dem nomination needs to find and reveal Captain Zero’s special brand of kryptonite about 20 days before the election.

  22. boodog says:

    AKjah, very well said. I hope something can be done while the elders are still here to teach what must be taught. Too much is being lost every year from the memories of those who ‘know’.

  23. seattlefan says:

    Oh my….interesting history for those of us who don’t live in Alaska. Thanks for that.

    I wish you all well up there and hope the Dems can gain some ground. I’m with Gramiam…my Democratic head hurts as well!

    P.S. Re your comments about Parnell being a nice guy…..My mom had a saying “Nice don’t get it” . One of her better ones.


  24. AKjah says:

    In the last 40 years we have seen the,make yer bucks and get out crowd. They dont care about the future, they only care about their prosperity. We who care about this place we call home, have a vested interest in that it all works in the future. Our children need this from us. These ignorant inputs from the outside have us beat in the polls. We cannot give up. This place is too important to let it go to a bunch of yahoos. And thats what they are Yahoos. they dont care about funding education. They dont want to invest in anything that will not bring them immediate money. Screw children, screw elders, we want the money now.

    They want to hunt everything that walks on the land. And not be barred from it at the expence of those who rely on that. They will use any means to get at their quary, at the devistation of the local environment. Ride their 4-wheelers or tear it up with a snow machine, no matter. What do we care were gone in a few years. This has gone on for too long!!!

    I truelly hope we go through an oil shortage and the money all leaves the state. then perhaps we can get back to rational behavior. It may be a tough time but those who know how, will get by.

  25. Martha Unalaska Yard Sign says:

    Yep, he summed up my feelings exactly. With flair and a little more history and facts (those things scare Republicans!), but it’s exactly the way I see it right now, too. Hollis is a great speaker, but he’s tainted as anti-Palin. Berkowitz just doesn’t excite me. Bob Poe has been interesting and open. I’m very curios as to how well he knows ANSCA (Alaska Native Settlement Claims Act) since he authored the ANSCA Regional Assoc 2006 Economic Report.

    Bob Poe Quote:

    “When we see an “us-and-them” Alaska, we are forgetting that most of the people working for Native corporations aren’t Native. We forget that all of the resources pumped, mined, caught and harvested came from rural Alaska, where most Alaska Natives live.

    The rich Native culture we have in our state makes Alaska the unbelievably fantastic place it is. Native people are our co-workers, employers, employees, business partners, customers, friends, neighbors and family members. They are as Alaskan as you can get.”

  26. Gramiam says:

    My Democratic head hurts!

  27. CRFlats says:

    So Don, what about Binkley? Is he a contender?

  28. boodog says:

    This could be an interesting race….or not. Sorry AKM, sorry Ann Strongheart, sorry Alaska. You all deserve better after what you have been through. Maybe we will all be surprised?

  29. short-timer says:

    Now that Andrew Halcro is challenging Don Young, I’d like to see Diane Benson (who should’ve been mentioned in this article for her commendable previous challenge of Young) run for governor. Either Diane, or Fran Ulmer should run again. Seems they are the only dems that have any name recognition big enough to challenge Captain Zero.

  30. sauerkraut says:

    Is it just me or is Sarah Palin the original empress non sequitur?

    Interesting bit of Alaskan history… even more interesting comment about yon dung. Did he really do that? gah!

Leave A Comment

%d bloggers like this: