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Sen. Al Adams remembered as statesman with big heart and political skill

John Creed,Susan B. Andrews
A four-wheeler turns off Kotzebue’s newly renovated Front Street, recently renamed Sikkiagruk Shore Avenue after the late state Sen. Al Adams. Adams had long promoted the $38 million road project, which includes safe sidewalks, anti-erosion engineering, and energy-efficient lighting.
Susan B. Andrews photo
The late Al Adams (right) flashes his trademark smile next to his son Guy Adams at the Arctic Economic Development Summit in Barrow in 2001.
Bill Hess photo
The late Al Adams speaks at an Alaska Federation of Natives board meeting in Anchorage in the early 1980s. Adams died in August.
Bill Hess photo
These 2009 Mt. Edgecumbe High School graduating seniors represent the thousands of students who have attended the renowned boarding school in Sitka since the late 1940s. The late Al Adams of Kotzebue, an Edgecumbe graduate, helped save the school from permanent closure in the 1980s.
John Creed photo
Kotzebue Electric Association operates these wind turbines outside the remote community in Northwest Arctic Alaska. The state’s Power Cost Equalization program, championed by the late state legislator Al Adams, also assists rural Alaska in lowering electric bills.
John Creed photo

KOTZEBUE -- A few years ago just before Christmas Day, Sarah Scanlan’s phone rang at her home in Anchorage. It was her brother, Al Adams, the late state senator from Northwest Arctic Alaska.

“Can you meet me at Bean’s Café?” he asked.

Scanlan headed straight for Anchorage’s daytime shelter, where Alaskans find sanctuary from the cold and nourishment to quell a growling stomach.

“There he was,” Scanlan recalled, her beloved brother unloading nearly two dozen holiday turkeys from the back of his pick-up, wearing that signature grin that made his Inupiaq eyes squint so much they almost disappeared.

At Bean’s Café on that day, Al Adams was helping others enjoy a hearty Christmas dinner. Less-fortunate Alaskans remained a lifelong concern for Adams: the homeless, the sick, the poor, the impoverished elderly, the mentally ill, the street people, Alaska’s displaced families.

This December marks the first holiday season Al Adams’ extended family and friends are without the widely respected former legislator, who died on Aug. 13 at age 70 after an agonizing battle with pancreatic cancer. As this year closes, his loved ones likely will focus on their warm personal memories, including the character of the man.

“There is much I don’t know about Al’s good deeds that I am just now learning of,” Scanlan said. “He did them quietly and from the heart.”

Hometown: Kotzebue

Al Adams grew up in Kotzebue, whose Inupiaq name Kikiktagruk means “almost an island.” The trade and transportation hub for a region the size of the state of Indiana, Kotzebue is an Inupiaq Eskimo settlement virtually surrounded by the sea and framed by bald mountains and treeless tundra on Alaska’s windswept Northwest Arctic coast.

Kotzebue, sitting precariously as it always has on a tiny gravel spit that jabs the Chukchi Sea, was home to about 400 residents when Al Adams entered the world on June 18, 1942. His hometown swelled eight times over in the ensuing decades to the 3,200 or so residents the U.S. Census counted in 2010.

For thousands of years in Arctic Alaska, the Inupiat traditionally caught walrus, seals, and polar bear for food, clothing and shelter. They’ve hunted the giant bowhead whale and the small, white beluga whale. And ugruk, the bearded seal. And caribou. They’ve fished for chum salmon, grayling, trout, and the celebrated, giant sheefish.

They’ve gathered wild berries on the tundra and eggs from nesting seabirds. They’ve plied rivers, lakes and ocean waters in kayaks and skin boats. They’ve traveled overland by dog team. They’ve lived in sod huts dug into the tundra and heated with seal oil and framed with driftwood and whale bones.

Like most rural Alaska  residents growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, young Al’s life did not include many of today’s modern amenities: electricity, running water and sewer, gleaming schools, daily jet service to Nome and Anchorage, snowmobiles and four-wheelers, cars and trucks, a local radio station, satellite television, the Internet -- even a few paved streets.

As a child, young Al looked forward to the annual Christmas program at Kotzebue’s Friends Church. Like his peers, Al couldn’t wait to get his hands on one of those paper bags stuffed with popcorn, raisins, hard candy and other treats distributed to village children who suffered in delightful agony all the way to the end of the elongated Christmas Eve service.

Adams never forgot his roots nor those youthful sensations from something as simple as a small bag of Christmas indulgences. Throughout his adult life, he quietly donated to the Friends Christmas program so that succeeding generations might enjoy that same tradition, just one of numerous ways the senator served his community and state.

Public Memorial in Anchorage

For 20 years, from 1980 through 2000, Adams represented constituents in the Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs (and the Nome region to some extent) in the Alaska House and Senate. For the final dozen years of his life, Adams continued to work state Capitol halls in Juneau as a consultant and then as a lobbyist, primarily for rural clients.

When Adams passed away in August, this political powerhouse left behind thousands of admirers throughout Alaska along with many friends and a large extended family.

“When 1500 people come to your funeral, that’s a great sign of respect,” said Arliss Sturgulewski, who at 85 is an elder stateswoman, former state senator and former Republican nominee for governor in 1990.

Sturgulewski and Adams served together in the state legislature throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. Two days after Adams died, Sturgulewski joined the legions of mourners who filled the cavernous ChangePoint mega-church in Anchorage to remember and celebrate the late senator’s life.

The crowd included some of Alaska’s most prominent business and political figures, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, former Democratic governors Bill Sheffield and Tony Knowles as well as sitting and former lawmakers from across the political spectrum.

Political parties didn’t matter much to Adams, for the Democrat from Kotzebue worked both sides of the aisle in Juneau.

“He was no ideologue,” said Byron Mallot, a southeast Alaska business and political leader of Tlingit heritage who delivered his long-time friend’s eulogy in Anchorage.

Adams belonged to a cohort of state leaders, Mallot said, who assumed the responsibility and unique opportunity to transform a young state at a critical time in its history. Mallot described Adams and his contemporaries as “a generation of necessity and inclination that shaped Alaska as we know it today.”

Rural Alaska’s Resource Wealth

While traditional subsistence activities will forever tie Adams to his hometown and to all of rural Alaska, this ardent hunter and fisherman also navigated Alaska’s urban political waters, particularly when threats to rural subsistence hunting and fishing rights had grown more dire than in recent years.

Adams also understood that while most of the state’s natural resource wealth emanates from rural Alaska, only about one-tenth of those riches actually circulate within Alaska’s remote regions. In fact, “more than 90% of that wealth bypasses the remote economy” and instead generates the lion’s share of its economic activity elsewhere such as in Alaska’s urban areas, economist Scott Goldsmith of the University of Alaska Anchorage has concluded.

Adams saw public service as an opportunity to ensure that Alaska’s outsized natural resource assets -- from the North Slope oil fields to Northwest Arctic’s Red Dog Mine to commercial fishing, tourism, timber harvests, and so forth -- be shared more equitably among all Alaskans, rural and urban.

With his success in Alaska’s highest circles of power, Adams honed a special brand of politics he elevated to a fine art, combining charisma, intelligence and persistence to seal one deal after another.

“Al was a superb politician,” said Sturgulewski. “He knew how to bring people together. He mastered the idea that to get, you give. He really was a statewide politician. He saw the value of projects outside his district as good for the state, including in Alaska’s cities. Some politicians only care about their own district.”

Bush Legislative Power

The Bush Caucus wielded enormous power when Adams served in the state House in the 1980s. Holding the balance of power, Bush lawmakers could forge a ruling coalition with either major party, the result being rural legislators consistently landing leadership roles through plum committee assignments.  But more than just lucky positioning, the Bush also sent numerous high-caliber strategic thinkers to Juneau who became accomplished veteran legislators.

“Al was one of those long-serving members, and had a keen sense of what it took to make the process work,” said Brian Rogers, who served with Adams in the state House in the early 1980s. Rogers also worked with Adams in Juneau after Rogers joined the University of Alaska as a finance manager in the mid-1980s.

Rogers left UA in the late 1990s to launch a management consulting business but returned in 2008 to take UA-Fairbanks’ top job as chancellor. By then, Adams had left the legislature to become a lobbyist, but he and Rogers continued to work together.

“I could always count on Al to keep his word,” Rogers said.

Building Alaska

Not yet 40 years old when first elected to Alaska’s legislature in 1980, Adams had rocketed to power in Juneau in 1981 during the very first legislative session of his freshman term. Defying his own political party, Adams had become a ringleader in a stunning and unprecedented coup.

With minority Republicans, Adams helped orchestrate the rebellion. The insurgents seized control of the state House by literally grabbing the Speaker’s gavel and taking over that chamber when the ruling Democrats weren’t looking.

Adams’ audacity won the fledgling lawmaker the chair of Finance, likely the most powerful House committee at a time when oil production and prices were soaring, as was profligate state spending. Immediately after the revolt, the new kingpin of Finance revamped the state budget.

Oil revenues flooded the state treasury from 1980 through 1986 as the state collected a whopping $47 billion in oil taxes (in today’s dollars), according to the Institute for Social and Economic Research at UAA. As a result, during those years then-Rep. Adams became one of Alaska’s most powerful politicians, directing massive state spending virtually everywhere in a state relatively new to oil riches and playing catch-up on basic services and infrastructure.

Since construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in the 1970s, the state’s economic tides have ebbed and flowed on state oil taxes, oil production, and world oil prices. After world oil prices collapsed to as low as $8 a barrel in the mid-1980s, Alaska was catapulted into a deep recession that smothered what for many Alaskans seemed like a never-ending, invincible economic boom.

But as oil prices faltered, Alaska hemorrhaged jobs, income, and population. Unable to pay their drowning home mortgages, many residents simply dropped off their house keys at the bank and headed south. Adams, the potent House Finance chair, had to pivot and make drastic cuts in state spending.

Elected to the state Senate from the House in 1988, Adams served in key positions and in influential joint House/Senate conference committee positions. After legislative redistricting following the 1990 census, Republican power swelled in Anchorage and throughout south-central Alaska.

As a result, the need to craft power-sharing deals with once commanding Bush legislators dropped like massive ice chunks splattering into the sea from calving glaciers. Still, the senator from Kotzebue for years continued to sit on legislative conference committees. He managed to meander successfully through the new reality of Anchorage-based legislative power in Juneau to secure for rural Alaska a more equitable if diminished share of Alaska’s rural-based resource wealth. (Rural and Alaska Native political power continues to shrink: Natives won just five of 60 legislative seats in the 2012 elections.)

Coming Home

In elective office, Adams helped transform a young state in need of numerous new schools throughout Alaska, increase support of K-12 and higher education, establish rural infrastructure such as water/sewer projects in villages without indoor plumbing, build new roads and bridges, and generally instigate social and economic development everywhere in Alaska, including his own hometown.

“There’s hardly a project in this town that doesn’t have Al’s fingerprints on it,” said Eugene Smith, the City of Kotzebue’s long-time mayor.

Other communities throughout northern Alaska have embraced the late senator’s memory, in addition to Alaskans everywhere who appreciate his statewide vision -- and impact.

In Kotzebue on Aug. 17, to pay their respects, local people and visitors from the North Slope and elsewhere gathered at the Alaska Airlines terminal, where Sen. Adams’ remains had traveled from Anchorage. His casket was lifted onto a shiny red fire truck to make the final journey through familiar streets where he romped in his youth, with many of those streets paved today thanks largely to Adams.

Local people and visitors alike eulogized the senator at a public memorial at Kotzebue High School, but his hometown also had made sure to honor him before he passed.

Kotzebue’s New, Improved Front Street

In early August, Kotzebue’s Mayor Smith and the City Council had learned that Sen. Adams’ time was short. Local government officials, scrambling to pay tribute, called an emergency meeting on Aug. 7.

Years before, Adams had helped advance a $38 million transformation of Kotzebue’s storied Front Street. (Almost no one uses its official name, “Shore Avenue.”)

This public works project, fueled by state and federal highway funds along with Obama administration stimulus money, renovated a once narrow, dusty, dangerous dirt road into a spacious, elegant, safer paved street and promenade looking out across Kotzebue Sound toward the distant Mulgrave Hills.

For decades, ruthless ocean waves had been pounding Kotzebue’s shoreline during the Arctic’s ice-free months. Also, during break-up a few years ago, surging spring ice had leaped across Front Street, stabbing a local home and ripping parts of it to shreds.

For years the unrelenting sea had been threatening to undermine Front Street’s homes and businesses. Only a narrow gravel strip stood between these exposed structures and oblivion from inundating seawater.

Not any more. The project contractor drove a massive, vertical corrugated steel wall deep underground, then backfilled some 60,000 cubic yards of crushed rock, gravel and boulders along the newly established water’s edge, pushing back on the ever-rising sea in this era of global warming.

Along with safe sidewalks on both sides of the street and anti-erosion engineering, today’s Front Street in Kotzebue also boasts energy-efficient street lights.

Sikkiagruk is Al Adams’ Inupiaq name, bestowed at birth by an elder in the ancient Inupiaq tradition. At its Aug. 7 special meeting, the Kotzebue City Council passed a resolution renaming Front Street as “Sikkiagruk Shore Avenue,” after the perpetually smiling state senator from Kotzebue.

City officials also had connected Adams by audio conference on Aug. 7. Weakened by his illness, Sen. Adams listened from Anchorage along with two of his six children, sons Albert Jr. and Guy.

One by one, elected officials from Kotzebue, as well as Mayor Brad Reich from upriver Kiana, thanked Adams for his service to Alaska. The senator responded with his own gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

Not a week later, surrounded by family including his wife Diane, Sikkiagruk Albert Adams drew his last breath.

Today Adams is remembered as someone who got things done. Who loved to laugh and made others do the same. To the end, though, Adams remained eminently serious about his life’s work, from president of his village corporation to executive vice president for NANA Regional Corp. to elective office to numerous boards and more.

Friends and relatives mostly remember a family man.

As sister Sarah Scanlan recalls, “Al was the quintessential planner for family outings, whether it was dip netting at Kenai, halibut fishing, caribou hunting, checking crab pots, quick boating trips across to Sisaulik (the subsistence camp nine miles from Kotzebue), and even berry picking. I never saw him with a written checklist, but don’t ever recall having to say, ‘Oh, we forgot that.’”

This holiday season is not passing painlessly or carefree for family and friends who remember the man now put to rest on Cemetery Hill overlooking Kotzebue.

“We miss him and continue to miss him dearly,” said Scanlan.

Farewell, Senator. May you rest in peace.

Susan Andrews and John Creed have taught in the humanities at Chukchi College, the Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, since the late 1980s. This story originally appeared in the Arctic Sounder, and is republished here with permission.