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A Tale of Two Mayors

While the coverage of President Obama’s venture to Alaska has been more than thorough one aspect of it has curiously, at least to me, been ignored – the relationship between the mayors of two communities visited by our commander in chief.

At this point, I suspect, the vast majority of readers have no idea what I’m talking about so, in keeping with my habit of sharing information for those expressing an interest in expanding their knowledge, I’ll explain.

Let us, together, venture back in time to the politics of 1996. Some of you may think of the rout suffered by national Democrats following President Clinton’s failed national health care plan (echoes?). That same year, however, five freshman Democrats were elected to the Alaska House of Representatives: Albert Kookesh, Eric Croft, Allen Kemplen, Reggie Joule and Ethan Berkowitz.

Fast-forward a couple decades and Allen Kemplen remains active in local affairs in Fairview, Albert Kookesh remains on the Sealaska board of directors, Eric Croft is a member of the Anchorage School Board (and an Anchorage Assembly candidate), Reggie Joule is the mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough and Ethan Berkowitz is Anchorage’s mayor. What was remarkable about Reggie and Ethan’s victories back then, in particular, was their upset of the political status quo.

For years the North Slope house seat belonged to Barrow while the senate seat belonged to the Northwest (Al Adams in those days). Reggie’s upset win in the primary (no general election opposition) changed the dynamic dramatically. This wasn’t his first try for state office (my then step-father had supported his previous effort) and he was a hero for his athletic feats and efforts to assist native youth, but his victory was clearly a surprise.

Meanwhile Ethan managed to defeat the youngest son of legendary Anchorage mayor George Sullivan. Despite being the more qualified candidate Ethan was running in a bad year for Democrats against a scion of a prominent Anchorage family and still managed to prevail. That, too, was a surprise.

I wasn’t directly involved in any of those campaigns as I spent the spring of ’96 as an intern back east, the summer in Juneau working for Governor Knowles and the fall in Ketchikan. I was in my 20’s; that’s what kids are supposed to do, hey?

Between the five of them they grew a fascinating system of bonds amongst themselves and their legislative colleagues, Reggie & Ethan in particular. I know, because I was there for their first five years as legislators. (Well only four in Allen’s case, he retired, but you get the idea.)

It would be inappropriate to presume that I fully understand those internal dynamics but I think it fair to say that Reggie & Ethan shared a special bond. I don’t come to that conclusion lightly – I worked with Ethan those five years, one of Reggie’s former staffers is my down-the-street neighbor, my wife introduced Ethan to his wife and we all remain close to this day. Given their ties, I consider it unsurprising that President Obama’s visit to Alaska include visits to both (Kotzebue, in Reggie’s case; Anchorage, obviously, in Ethan’s case).

While they were miles apart stylistically – Ethan was sometimes referred to as the “minority quip” for his rhetorical fervor, while Reggie would often offer thoughtful, detailed discussions of indigenous activity under special orders as floor sessions concluded – they each had a dramatic impact on the legislature during their tenure. Here’s two examples:

  • During his second year, the legendary Ramona Barnes invited Ethan to her office, acknowledged he’d be around for a while and offered counsel on how to improve his effectiveness. He was elected minority leader the following year.
  • Late in his legislative tenure Reggie decided to join the Republican caucus. I suspect Ethan’s departure from the legislature may have been a contributing factor.  Speaker Chenault personally told me the caucus was a “hell of a lot better” with Reggie in it.

This week both Reggie and Ethan have addressed the GLACIER conference, both are the mayoral hosts of a presidential visit and both remain friends. When Ethan retired from the legislature the incoming minority leader, Beth Kerttula, commented that some people are born in Alaska but never become Alaskans, while some people are born elsewhere as Alaskans (Ethan in the latter camp). Reggie and Ethan help demonstrate the diversity of the peoples that make up the Great Land. Whether it was coincidence or good planning, President Obama chose well in visiting the communities they represent.

This contribution was made on Wednesday, 02. September 2015 at 08:06 and was published under the category Other. You can follow comments on this entry through the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Nicely said, Patrick.

    Comment: Melissa Fouse – 02. September 2015 @ 8:18 am

  2. I appreciate the historical background. Thanks.

    Comment: Steve Turner – 02. September 2015 @ 9:42 am

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