talking with Vic Fischer
A Conversation with the Last Living Author of
the Constitution of the State of Alaska
BY GEORGE MARTINEZ
It is remarkable how young the Alaskan Constitution is considering the Constitution of the United States is 229 years old. One of the unique opportunities that we Alaskans have enjoyed is access to those civic and political leaders that framed and wrote the Constitution just over 60 years ago. The last surviving member of the Constitutional Convention for Alaska is Vic Fischer, who was one of the youngest members of the convention and is currently 95 years old. He is as enthusiastic about the future of Alaska as ever. Today, however, he sees a moment of crisis in the Alaskan political landscape and has a message of urgency that he has been organizing about.
Vic is one of the co-chairs of the bi-partisan effort to recall Governor Mike Dunleavy and is the only Democrat among two other Republicans that co-chair with him. The co-chairs are: Joseph E. Usibelli Sr., Chairman of the Board, Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc.; Vic Fischer, former Democratic state senator and delegate to the 1955 Alaska Constitutional Convention; and Arliss Sturgulewski, former Republican state senator from Anchorage.
I have the privilege of being Vic’s friend and recently sat down with him to discuss the Alaskan state of affairs and why he chose to help lead the recall effort.
George: Hi Vic, thank you for taking the time to meet with me today. I wanted to start by giving folks a sense of your background, how long have you been in Alaska and what kind of roles have you held in the state?
Vic: I have been in Alaska for 70 years. I came in 1950 after having been in the American army during WWII, finishing college afterward, going to graduate school and then coming straight to Alaska. It’s been home ever since. I’ve been away for a year here and there, but home is Alaska.
I was elected to the Alaska Constitutional Convention to write a constitution for Alaska before we even became a state. The territorial Legislature called a convention and 55 delegates were elected throughout Alaska. I was one of them, and it was a tremendously important highlight of my life.
George: At that time, you were one of the youngest delegates, correct?
Vic: Yes, I was one of the three youngest delegates, and today I am the only one of 55 still alive.
George: So, before Alaska was a state, your voice and vision was there at those transitional moments?
Vic: Right, and the Constitutional Convention was full of Alaskans, 55 delegates who had this vision of an Alaska where we the people are in charge, where we set up the structure of government, we set forth the individual rights of the people of Alaska and provided for the structure of Alaska in terms of having an executive branch, legislative branch and independent judicial branch as well as a system of local government.
George: Why pursue statehood?
Vic: Before we became a state, when we wrote the Constitution, Alaska was in effect a colony of the United States.
George: Like Puerto Rico remains today?
Vic: Right, like Puerto Rico. We could not vote for President; we could not vote for US Senators or for voting representation in Congress. So, what we were doing was setting up a system for self-government, where we Alaskans would run Alaska for the benefit of all the people. We provided for individual rights of citizens, for limited government, we wanted to have effective government, but we also wanted to be a free people so we balanced the future of the state and set it up so that we the people would have a say in the use of our resources and our civil rights.
Statehood at the time meant getting away from under federal control. Where everything came out of Washington and federal bureaucrats controlled Alaska. We the people wanted to vote for President, elect US Senators, voting representation in Congress and to get control of our resources and establish clearly the rights of us Alaskans as individual citizens.
55 delegates were elected from throughout Alaska. People were pretty idealistic, they saw a future where we would stand on our own legs, the individual human beings, nobody was in charge of everybody and we established a structure of government with an executive branch headed by a governor so that we knew who was in charge and who was to blame if anything went wrong.
We provided for a strong legislative branch, independent of the executive. We provided for a merit-based judiciary, judges were not political, were not beholden to special interests, where money didn’t buy justice, where individuals have the rights provided for in the Constitution.
George: Can you also speak about the constitutional right to public education?
Vic: We provided that the State, the Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of public education and that public funds will only be used for public education and will not be used for private schools and anything that is not under control of the people. Public dollars for public purposes only.
We provided that the Legislature shall provide for the welfare of the people so that no one would be left behind. There were other protections for the people. Like I said, the delegates were looking at a future where Alaskans were standing on our own feet.
George: Did you recognize the strategic importance of Alaska to the United States?
Vic: Yes, and we had some great US Senators that really looked out for Alaska and at the same time contributed to the United States. We have a broad view that because we are strategically located on the northern Pacific Rim; we feel that we contribute to the security of the United States as well as being full-fledged citizens.
George: Let’s talk about the current state of affairs. What do you see happening now?
Vic: Well, we set up a system of a strong executive branch because when we were a territory of the US, the governor was appointed by the President of the US and we had no say in who was governor.
Since then we have elected some very good people to be governor, people who looked out for the citizenry, for proper use of the resources of the state, and then we have our current governor, Mike Dunleavy, who essentially ran on giving people a Permanent Fund Dividend of $6700, essentially appealing to people’s financial self-interest instead of laying out a program for running the state. Then when he becomes governor and gives forth his first budget to the Legislature he just cuts a lot of fundamental programs, seems to be out to destroy the University of Alaska, and all levels of education including wiping out pre-school education which has proven very important in helping underserved kids get ready to learn and succeed in school.
This new governor has just been wiping out existing programs for kids and the elderly. We’ve had a program for many many years of providing the elders of our community, the old people, monthly assistance, just to get enough food and to have a roof over their heads, and he wiped out that support.
We’ve had, since 1913, long before we were a state, a system of pioneer homes for retired elderly who don’t have any alternative places to live. To have a home where somebody takes care of them, and if they had some money, they would pay a certain amount. Well this new governor, Dunleavy, has sought to increase the monthly costs, doubling rents and in some cases raising fees over 140%. It’s outrageous!
George: Is Alaska financially broke?
Vic: No, Dunleavy was elected on a platform of increasing the Permanent Fund Dividend that everyone in Alaska is entitled to and when he became governor, he twisted Alaska, squeezing it dry to have more money available for the dividend. Alaska was not broke, we had budgets, we had reserves and we could still afford to take care of Alaskans.
He came in with a philosophy to reduce government and to squeeze the budget and the only way to do it is to veto what the Legislature does, which to me is a part of a national conspiracy to break the state governments, squeeze them dry, to reduce taxes on oil companies, on coal and on billionaires and to freeze public services. They are anti-government, anti-education, and they will destroy public education.
This is completely counter to our Alaskan Constitution. Because the Constitution is based on equal branches of government. The governor doesn’t have more rights than the Legislature or the Judiciary Branches. And Dunleavy he just vetoed, which is to kill appropriations including for the Alaska Supreme Court, which is completely counter to the principles of the Alaska Constitution, where the judiciary is a completely independent branch of our state government. The governor is overstepping the boundaries of what the Constitution sets forth, and so thousands and thousands of Alaskans have now signed petitions to recall the governor.
Recalling the governor means that we the people will get to vote, shall the governor be recalled, which means fired, or shall he be retained. We have been collecting signatures and it’s not an easy process. It’s a very difficult process, it requires that individual Alaskans have to fill out and sign a form. And we have to get close to 30k signatures just to apply for the recall process. Then the division of elections and Lt. Governor review the signatures to make sure that the minimum number is met, nearly 28k, to apply for the petition. Then they set up a recall petition and there is a big phase 2 that requires close to 80k signatures from all over Alaska. We are now in the process of doing that.
The people of Alaska have enthusiastically signed petitions, they are disgusted with what the governor has proposed, and Dunleavy is now pulling back on some areas.
George: So, would you say that the public pressure against the vetoes has been felt?
Vic: Yes, he is now stepping back from his extremism, but he cannot fool the people a second time. People have seen what he’ll do and so we will pursue the recall, regardless of what he does now. We have a core group of 3 co-chairs sponsoring the recall effort. We are a balanced trio of 2 republicans and I’m the democrat of the group. Now there are hundreds of people gathering signatures across Anchorage and the state. Our aim is to get rid of Dunleavy as governor.
George: One of the things that I really appreciate about you is that you continue to encourage people to engage in the process, to not be passive participants but to be proactive engagers in the political process. To lift voices and to make their power felt. You continue to refer back to the power of the people and the intentionality of the authors of the Constitution to embed the rights of the people and their power in the Constitution.
Vic: That’s right. And we are not doing anything illegal here, we are following the Constitution. We are following the law.
George: Does the Constitution set forth a recall process?
Vic: The Constitution says the Legislature shall by law set up a procedure for recall and that all public officials are subject to recall, and left it to the Legislature to set up the procedures. The Legislature did that and now we are following that process.
George: Has a recall ever happened before?
Vic: There was one case when a recall process was started but the problem was resolved, and they never finished the process. It’s never been successfully carried through to an actual recall election but that is our goal. We’re willing to go through the process, we will get the 80k signatures and then there will be an election - shall the governor be recalled?
George: One of the things I noticed about the leadership of the recall effort is that you are from across the political spectrum and it appears less of a partisan conflict and more about a principled defense of Alaska.
Vic: Yes, that was well said; this is about the defense of Alaska. What we want is for Alaska to be a solid state, where young people can get an education, where everyone has an opportunity to benefit from our resources, no one is excluded. We don’t want our young people to be hopeless, to be kept from getting an education. We don’t want poor people to suffer and old people to be without hope and without support.
We have a community where we have responsibilities as citizens to help other citizens. We are a community and we’ve got to keep our community whole and alive. That’s really what we want, to have a healthy state, healthy in mind and body where opportunities are available for those in Alaska and those that come to Alaska, people like you and me. We don’t want this governor to destroy our state, we want to build it and grow it.
George: What is the final message you’d like to leave our fellow Alaskans with?
Vic: Ok, let me read from the Alaska Constitution. This is Article 1, Section 1, the very first paragraph of the Alaska Constitution.
“This constitution is dedicated to the principles that all persons have a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the enjoyment of the rewards of their own industry; that all persons are equal and entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law; and that all persons have corresponding obligations to the people and to the State.”
What this means is that in exchange for all the rights that we have as citizens of Alaska, we have an obligation to the people and to the State. That means that you are part of a community and the most basic obligation to the people and to the state is to be a participant, that you vote, that you express yourself, that you sign petitions, that you are a part of a community. That is my obligation, it’s your obligation, it’s the citizens’ obligation for all the rights that are established in the Constitution.
George: That is the exact exclamation point to a phenomenal conversation. Vic, thank you so much.
Vic: Thank you George, I am delighted to do this.
For more information on the recall effort you can visit: www.recalldunleavy.org