Opinion: The dead end of ‘my way or the highway’

There’s a need to build bridges.

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Monday, February 28, 2022 11:09pm
  • Opinion

By Rich Moniak

This week, Tuckerman Babcock, former chief of staff to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, declared his candidacy for the seat currently held by Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. He claims he’ll be able to help “bring sides [and] people together” to solve some of the state’s longstanding problems.

But in these polarized times, there’s probably a significant number of constituents who prefer his iron fist approach to politics. And that’s a huge problem.

Juneauites will have no say in Babcock’s race. But his entry into the campaign served to remind me what former Gov. Bill Walker wrote a few weeks ago in the Anchorage Daily News. As a candidate seeking to return to the Governor’s Mansion, he argued “dialogue, negotiation, compromise and diplomacy” are as essential to governing as knowing when to stand firm against the opposition.

Now, only one of these men is sincere about the bridge building part. It’s not Babcock, who as Dunleavy’s point man unconstitutionally demanded loyalty from hundreds of state workers. And a few years earlier, Babcock tried to purge elected Republicans from the party he chaired because they preferred to work across party lines.

It’s not surprising Babcock is seeking to rehabilitate his reputation. A longtime behind-the-scenes political operative turned candidate, he obviously recognizes the problems Alaska’s new election law poses for him.

The old system gave the party’s base greater influence in choosing their nominee for the general election. In the heavily Republican district he’s running in, that meant the winner of the primary election would almost be guaranteed a seat in the legislature.

Now, Babcock will have to face Micciche again in the general election. To win that, he’ll have to appeal to moderates in both parties as well as independent voters.

That’s probably why Babcock sought to portray his long relationship with Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, in a positive light. “It just goes to show you that it’s a small state and you develop relationships and friendships even if your politics are very, very different,” he said.

Walker offered a different example of old friendships like that.

“I often think of Sen. Ted Stevens’ memorial service where the two main speakers were his dear friends — both Democrats — then-Vice President Biden and Hawaii’s Sen. Daniel Inouye.”

Babcock’s story may be much more personal, but it may not represent the complete picture.

Both he and Begich were high school friends with former Daily News columnist Charles Wohlforth. “Each remains my friend, despite public conflicts,” he wrote soon after Babcock was selected as Dunleavy’s chief of staff. “Political adversaries can still respect and like one another.”

However, Wohlforth also acknowledged that the friendship between Babcock and Begich died while “sparring for three decades over Alaska’s election district reapportionment battles.”

Exactly why that happened doesn’t matter. But attempting to rebuild the friendship with Begich would a good first step if Babcock really wants to reach out those who don’t share his political views.

Here again is the question of whether enough of his constituency would support that. It’s not a given, especially considering how many family relationships and friendships have been upended over political differences in recent years.

That shouldn’t be happening. Compared to Stevens, Biden and Inouye, most of us are only superficially engaged in political issues. The strain from disagreements shouldn’t run as deep as it did for them. They managed to keep it from ruining friendships. We should be able to as well.

Instead, the ruptures at our level might make elected officials wary of developing relationships with anybody in the opposition. It may also be why so many are afraid to publicly disagree with the vocal base of their respective party, and comfortable childishly displaying their party bona fides by insulting opponents on social media.

That’s not a pretty picture of self-governance. Or ourselves. Because ultimately those serving in public office reflect who we are and how we behave as a society.

Building bridges was central to Walker’s approach to almost everything. If elected, he’ll try it again. But until more people trust it’s the only sane manner of governing our diverse state, the ‘my way of the highway’ philosophy that suits Babcock and his former boss may keep us mired in never-ending conflict.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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