Jay Hammond: Alaska's pioneer politician

By , Staff of The Christian Science Monitor

AFTER threading our small plane through a hundred miles of saw-toothed mountain passes, the rocky incline of Jay Hammond's beach looks like a positively civilized landing strip. The former governor's 160-acre homestead may seem isolated here hundreds of miles from the nearest highway or telephone connection. But when the governor himself putts out of the woods on a spanking new tractor to offer a bumpy ride from the airstrip back to his spacious (by bush standards) log house, an outsider begins to see that isolation is a relative thing in Alaska.

``Alaskans are no more or less isolated than anyone,'' declares Mr. Hammond, who has no neighbors on the 50-mile western shore of this deep blue glacial lake. He can communicate to the outside only with a marine-band radio, and finds newspaper delivery to his winter home so late that the only part he reads is the cryptograms.

The gray-bearded former governor, who looks like an L. L. Bean-outfitted Santa Claus with a temperament to match, has proved that isolation may be environmental, but it doesn't have to be social, political, or economic in this state.

Recommended: Voter turnout: the 6 states that rank highest, and why

It was after all from the bush community that this professional guide, bush pilot, and commercial fisherman rose to political power. He held the gubernatorial seat for eight years while standing firmly on the middle ground between powerful pro-development and environmental interests during the richest and most turbulent boom time in the state.

So successful was his brand of hybrid politics (which earned him the title of ``non-politician,'') that it still tends to boost the popularity of those state politicians who take an independent stance.

Though occupied with things like moving the guest house to high ground after a beaver dam break, or waiting several days for a mail drop, the governor still finds himself in the Alaska mainstream.

He carries on his commercial fishing operation from his Naknek home on Bristol Bay 100 miles farther south, guides and flies fishing parties, and is on the boards of directors of the Audubon Society and Sheldon Jackson College. Hammond also chairs the Governor's Committee on the Longevity Bonus Program (a part of the state's controversial program to give oil royalties back to the people).

In his spare time, he writes a newspaper column and is preparing to serve as the host of an Alaska public-television version of Charles Kuralt's ``On the Road.''

The diversity -- not to mention the geographic range -- of his responsibilities might appear to be a hectic schedule in the Lower 48. But Hammond, who has lived with his wife Bella in these circumstances for most of the last 30 years, exudes the air of a woodsman at peace with his surroundings -- though he relishes the opportunity for spirited debate.

He explains that his is not an unusual life, but that living in wilderness and taking active responsibility for it, are not mutually exclusive. He suggests that ``there's probably more commentary and participation here than any other state'' because the average Alaskan still feels he can make a difference.

Although Hammond sees an urban-rural polarization coming as the bulk of the population shifts to Anchorage, the traditional Alaskan way of life hasn't changed that much from the days when he was a ``wild-haired kid'' lured to Alaska by the tales of a bush pilot and fellow marine.

It's hard to say how much Alaska shaped Jay Hammond, or perhaps how much Jay Hammond has shaped the identity of today's Alaska.

``He's the perfect expression of Alaska,'' a well-known local artist says, echoing descriptions given of him all over the state.

The stereotype of an Alaskan life style held in the Lower 48 may run anywhere from a spartan igloo existence on the tundra, to the excesses of an Alaska sheik whooping it up with oil royalties.

The latter image, Hammond admits, may have been compounded by his creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund -- a sort of savings account to accumulate the riches of the oil boom against a bust, while providing yearly dividends for Alaskan residents.

Still, he says there's a need for Alaskans to be more atuned to the kind of heavy state spending taking place today. Even though it's coming out of the well-padded state coffers, it could be a pattern that leaves tomorrow's Alaskans in the poorhouse.

But the governor stands by the Permanent Fund, and he loves the opportunity to explain to an outsider the philosophy behind it and why it fits very well with independent Alaskan sensibilities.

``They [outsiders] call this oddball program a government handout program,'' he says of criticisms from the outside of the Permanent Fund's dividend distribution. ``It's a takeaway program from the politicians.''

One in every eight barrels of oil goes to the state as a royalty and one-quarter to one-half of all royalties go into the Permanent Fund and cannot be spent.

Nearly $4 billion had been paid into the fund by 1983 and half of the interest earnings can be spent on dividends and other government outlays.

``We would never have accumulated the fund if not for the dividend. The dividend establishes an awareness that it's the public's money,'' Hammond explains.

``You have to put a check in the people's hands to make them understand. Give them a check and compel them to pay'' out of that check for the programs politicians typically pass, he says.

``This reestablishes the connection that it's public money being spent. It creates a first defense against invading the fund,'' says Hammond, reasoning that the public dividends will be the first place to cut back if the state government wants money for programs.

The public, he says, is less likely to give up its dividends without scrutinizing exactly what they'll be spending on.

``Selected subsidies'' like low-interest loans, medical care programs, ferry systems, and the like were not ``mandated by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution,'' he says. For example, Hammond says that ``to make enormous power projects appealing with postage- stamp rates for power is nothing but another form of a dividend unequally distributed.''

And he adds that there would be a very rapid decrease in funding of these things if the average citizen was asked to pay for them directly out of his dividend. ``It's the ultimate in grass roots, it's grass-roots revenue sharing,'' he says.

``When the pinch comes, they'll cut back on subsidies not on dividends,'' he says.

And the pinch will come to this state that has been living off a revenue boom that ``went right off the Richter scale,'' Hammond indicates.

He says he supports reinstating the state income tax, which was repealed as oil revenues started flowing into state coffers.

A state income tax would create a way to protect the Permanent Fund but also, in the same way the dividend does, it would create a psychological connection among the public to government spending.

The public here needs to be more sensitive to government spending -- to feel its effects, he suggests. Government services feel good at a time when oil revenues are high, but when they slip, the individual citizen is going to see a sharp cutback in services and money.

``Healthy growth is environmentally sound and can pay its own way. But we've made it exceedingly difficult for anyone to pay its way -- there's no state income tax . . . sales tax . . . property tax.

``There's an enormous cost for services and nothing to help offset the cost. We're unique among states for that. Normally you stimulate economic growth and it creates revenue. . . . Here it doesn't, it just depletes our finite wealth.''

His economic perspective, he says, combined with his concern for the environment, ``gave me a reputation for a flaming environmentalist, as a zero growth [advocate]. . . . But if I aspired to that, then we failed miserably. I don't know where we'd be if we were promoting it.''

His middle-ground stance -- fiscal conservatism with an environmental conscience -- makes him sound distinctly like the Libertarians who have found more success in Alaska than any other state.

But Republican Hammond, like the many Alaskan politicians who've come after him, prefers not to mention party labels and even suggests that the Libertarians ``plagiarize from Hammond's own lexicon.''

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...