A year ago, I touched down in Kotzebue on what was supposed to be a connecting stop on the way to the inauguration celebration for Governor Micheal J. Dunleavy in Noorvik. I was on a freelance assignment for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and in a bit of dumb luck that seems to follow me to rural Alaska, I ended up being the lone reporter to see what unfolded in Kotzebue.
Already scrapped by the 7.1-magnitude earthquake was the governor’s plan to ride snowmachines to the village. That morning a storm was moving in and connecting flights to the hometown village of Rose Dunleavy were delayed—past the noon deadline for the new governor to be sworn in.
Would the weather clear in time? Would Mike Dunleavy be sworn in midflight? Might the inauguration have to happen in Kotzebue? What would happen?
Kevin Meyer and his family—comically out of place in their inauguration-day best next to Carhartt-clad men, chatting about sleds and guns—were trying to figure out the same thing when I spotted them in the Ravn terminal.
There was a sense of nervous uncertainty mixed with the “Well, whatever happens, happens and we’ll make it work” resignation familiar to anyone who’s traveled in Alaska.
“It’s so Alaskan,” Meyer said in between checking his phone for updates.
And the community of Kotzebue—particularly the teachers, students and staff at Kotzebue Middle-High School—did what Alaskans do and made it work.
By the time the soon-to-be governor stepped off his plane, stooping slightly to fit through the terminal doors, and having abandoned hope of landing in Noorvik in time, the school was already busily preparing to host the inauguration.
Chairs were lined up, the stage was set and everyone was jittery with excitement.
Other reporting teams had—responsibly—gone out a day or even days before to Noorvik. My seat-of-the-pants planning paid off, and I got an exclusive seat to witness Alaskans pulling together in the way Alaskans pull together to host the first inauguration of a governor north of the Arctic Circle.
It felt exciting. It felt a little wild. But above all, it felt Alaskan.
The inauguration went off without a hitch. Dunleavy was sworn in on time, thanking the community for going the extra mile to host him, and before long he was gone. Whisked off to Noorvik when the weather cleared.
I stayed behind in Kotzebue, chatting with teenagers who were starstruck by the governor and who were wowed that someone who lived and worked in their community could really be elevated to the state’s highest office. I wrote my story from a table in Little Louie’s, gazing out on the soft glow of a snow-covered community as the sky cleared.
It was a truly moving day. One that filled me—a blogger who had spent most of the election critical of Dunleavy’s dodging of forums—with optimism that the governor’s connection to rural Alaska and to the spirit of community I saw there would win the day. This, even in light of concerns about his inexperience, his partisan-driven loyalty pledge, and the blank-slate platform he campaigned on.
Alaskans were doing what was right for Alaska. I had hoped that he’d do the same.
Instead, by the time I returned to Anchorage, the news of the hatchet-job firings—apparently driven by the notion that employees would be more dedicated to their political leanings than Alaska—dropped and took the luster off the day.
While Kotzebue and Noorvik were celebrating the inauguration, Dunleavy’s administration was dismantling careers and upending the lives of many who had dedicated so much to Alaska.
It was those loyalty pledge firings—still working their way through the court system—that ended up being a far more defining moment on Dec. 3, 2018, not the soaring sense of optimism I and other Alaskans briefly felt in Kotzebue.
In those firings, we saw Dunleavy for what he really was: A deeply partisan individual who ultimately valued allegiance to him over allegiance to Alaska. It’s a petty administration that’s been defined by the “Us vs. The Other” narrative of grievance politics adopted by the Right after the 2008 elections.
Dunleavy, who has recently turned to the right-wing national media for a sympathetic ear, has cast the recall campaign as a Democrat-led plot to undo the election. No. It’s a response to what many—and many more than those who put their name to paper—see as Dunleavy versus Alaska.
While the University of Alaska reels from its cuts, as coastal communities grapple with the elimination of ferry service for the winter months, as seniors deal with skyrocketing rates to live in Pioneer Homes, Dunleavy says he was just trying to start a conversation. He says he’s listening to Alaskans.
His now-departed budget director Donna Arduin scoffed when legislators wondered what impact the deep cuts and confiscated local revenue would have on local communities. Arduin and the administration couldn’t be bothered by such mundane issues as the devastating effects their policies would have on local property taxes.
Not only was Dunleavy not interested in listening, he was hellbent on imposing a fanciful conservative ideology with friends like Arduin and his buddies at Americans for Prosperity. The last year hasn’t been a year of conservative governance, it’s been a year of unnecessary and self-inflicted dysfunction and petty partisanship.
It’s Dunleavy—not the recall—who has freshly drawn deep and painful dividing lines in Alaska.
Dunleavy’s disdain of local impacts is among a long list of things that made the formation of a bipartisan coalition in the House, a remarkable allegiance between House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and Senate President Cathy Giessel and, honestly, the recall campaign no surprise.
Unlike the national stage, where party politics have ruled the day and Republicans have been unable and unwilling to rein in the selfish behavior of the president, many Alaskans have pulled together across party lines to defend their state, recalling the immortal words of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
“To hell with politics, just do what’s right for Alaska.”
It’s the courage we see in legislators bucking their party to do what’s right for Alaska that inspires optimism today. It’s the thousands of people who are getting engaged, whether it’s in the political ring or by stepping up and volunteering to fill the gaps left by the governor, who inspire optimism.
The last year may have felt like an interminable storm hanging over the 49th state but just like the storm that hung over rural Alaska last year, it will eventually break and in the meantime, Alaskans can be counted on to pull together for each other and their great state.