Life Is A Picnic For Democrats In Alaska

While the rest of the country -- "Outside" we call it up here -- has been swept up in seemingly apocalyptic floods and fires and heat waves, we in Anchorage have barely seen summer yet. Normally this time of year finds us hiking with the bears and kayaking with the whales and swooping up salmon while the sub-arctic sun gently kisses the tops of our still-partially frozen sub-arctic skulls. Summer in Alaska is normally right out of a postcard, if it happens to make its way to you and not get hijacked by a lesser, greedier state. Like California, say.

Although it didn't hit 70 degrees this Saturday, the sun did peak its way through the clouds for at least a while for the annual Democratic solstice picnic held at a park in Anchorage. It touched down upon the six-piece band, the woman walking through the crowd with two live donkeys, the children as they swung on swing-sets and the men as they munched on meat. It felt like a sign; just another good thing among so many that has happened recently.

When the FBI arrived in 2006 wearing suits (the suits were a big deal) and brandishing warrants for mostly Republican state legislative offices, the official Democratic pol line was, "It's a sad day for Alaska." But truly many could barely contain their glee. Forever, it seemed, they had been screaming about political corruption and nobody wanted to listen. Two years later, three Republican state legislators are in prison for bribery, more charges are expected, and there's an ongoing investigation into the dealings of U.S. Congressman Don Young and U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, both of whom, as well as the party they belong to, have had an iron grip on this state for decades.

Better yet, both of them have strong challengers. Two Dems, Ethan Berkowitz and Diane Benson, are vying for Young's seat. Berkowitz, a long-time former state legislator, is wicked smart, quick witted, and preppin' for a fight. Diane Benson is Alaska Native, a mother of a wounded Iraq war veteran, has little party but wide grassroots support. She took Young on in 2006 and shocked the state by winning more than 40 percent of the vote.

Stevens will likely be facing popular two-term Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who is one of those rare breads of getter-done Democrats, and who has political pedigree in Alaska. (His father, Nick Begich, was a Democratic U.S. Legislator, who, along with U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Bogs, died in a plane crashed in 1972 less than one month before he was to face off against challenger Don Young. Begich won the race posthumously.)

Senator John McCain's opposition to opening ANWR to oil exploration (exploration that most Alaskans support), his tiffs with Stevens about earmarks, and the fact that he isn't quite Republican enough to psych them up or Libertarian enough to psych them up, has resulted in putting Senator Obama in play here, and a picnic filled with Alaskans of all colors (yes, we've got color) sporting Obama T-shirts.

In the past, these things haven't been much fun. When Dems are dour, they're really very dour. But this Saturday, the longest day of the year when the sun was peaking from the clouds and the band was playing and the donkeys weren't braying and the burgers were aplenty, the mood was different, hopeful, even.

Johnathan Teeters, who is a statewide organizer for the Alaska Democratic Party, and who was hired in 2005 as part of Howard Dean's 50-state strategy, thinks that the change in the mood is not only due to the stars aligning for the party, but also because the party was there to direct people when the cracks on the other side began to form. For the last three years, in a building in the center of Anchorage, they've been doing those mysterious things that party apparatchik do: working up strategy and combing through polls and making potions and casting spells and putting pins in dolls. They've been doing, in fact, what the Republicans did throughout the 80s and 90s.

So far, here in Anchorage, their efforts have helped to turn a fairly right-leaning city Assembly into one that now leans left. They've picked up some seats in the state legislature, and are working on, and will probably succeed, in getting a few more. But their most public displays of success so far have been the more than 5,000 people they got to show up at the caucus in February (with the help of Obama's people and resulting in one of the biggest traffic jams in Anchorage history and hordes being turned away at the too-small school door), and last month's packed state Democratic convention, where U.S. House candidate Berkowitz began a speech with this: "I look out across this sea of Democrats and I sort of feel like Moses did looking on the promised land."

Recently, the national party has sent up here a slew of young organizers from all across the country who have been making polite phone calls, gently knocking on doors. Alaskans have been receiving fliers asking them to be community leaders and have been, increasingly, invited to functions like the solstice picnic, where everybody was downright ebullient, except, perhaps, those young organizers themselves, who tended to huddle among each other. Maybe they don't quite trust yet that even the blues in this ruby-red state aren't going to pull shotguns from their Carhartts and demand that they take their lefty selves back from the lesser states whence they came.

Or maybe it was that a reporter was following them around, asking questions about themselves, about how they felt about Alaska and the world, which seemed to put nothing less than the fear of God in them. They are so young, after all, and have been plunked down into this strange, huge chilly state with such a mighty mission. And the country, for the first time in a very long time, is watching.