Hugh Malone's life taught Alaska true meaning of statesmanship

Posted: Tuesday, March 13, 2001

The tragic death of former Kenai resident Hugh Malone while traveling in Italy obviously makes this a good time to examine the qualities that make him a special figure in Alaska history.

Hugh was a six-term Democratic member of the state House of Representatives from the Kenai Peninsula, speaker of the House, and commissioner of the Department of Revenue. But it's what he did in those positions that is really important:

His crucial contributions to the adoption of oil tax increases have brought billions of dollars to the coffers of the state of Alaska.

His role as architect of the Alaska Permanent Fund and its careful investment policy has saved billions of dollars for Alaskans in the future.

His work to create the permanent fund dividend program has resulted in the distribution of billions of dollars in permanent fund dividends to individual Alaskans.

What made this legacy possible was Hugh's statewide vision, his courage, his passion about his goals, his tenacity, his integrity and his unmatched strategic insight into legislative politics.

Hugh's primary goal in public service was to make sure the people of Alaska got a fair share for the people of Alaska out of the enormous bounty of oil wealth created by the discovery of the supergiant Prudhoe Bay oil field on state-owned land. Although Hugh could work to deliver for the peninsula -- the Kenai courthouse comes to mind -- Hugh did not measure his career in public office by what he could get for his district or what would get him re-elected or elected to higher office.

His vision flowed from intensely held values. What made him probably Alaska's best legislative strategist ever was how deeply he could see into things. It takes coalitions and deals to get controversial or landmark legislation passed, and Hugh Malone saw how to put them together better than anybody else.

His obvious sincerity and devotion to the public interest earned Hugh the respect of even his fiercest ideological adversaries (including my father, a prominent Republican legislator in the 1970s).

Hugh combined unconventional -- even wildly radical -- thinking about strategy and tactics with a tremendous patience. An essential element of his leadership was spending hours listening to other legislators express their concerns, no matter how parochial or petty those might seem.

Hugh would soldier on against apparently impossible odds to win victory after victory. At the beginning of the 1982 session, all the smart money said that the Legislature would never pass a bill that would provide permanent fund dividends equally to all Alaskans -- but with the help of Hugh (then in the minority), Gov. Jay Hammond, and a tiny band of activists, that is the program we have today.

The picture looked similarly bleak in 1989, when legislation to modify the oil severance tax's Economic Limit Factor ("ELF") faced intense opposition even after the Exxon Valdez hit the reef and created anger against the oil industry. As votes wavered both ways in the session's final chaotic hours, Hugh's test pilot-like nerves helped steady him when some of its strongest supporters had given the bill up for dead.

Hugh's calm in fights was probably bolstered by his record of surviving his taking of unpopular stands that many thought would end his political career, such as votes against subsidies for economic development projects with big-money lobbying pushes behind them. Despite major efforts made to unseat him, he never lost an election.

Hugh's love for his wife Deborah Vogt and the pride he took in his children Alanna, Rory and Shevaun are what many will remember of his private life, but what many now are thinking of are the lessons he taught in public life.

Now that the biggest issue facing Alaska is fixing the state's fiscal system as Prudhoe Bay oil production falls, Alaska needs men and women to step up and show the same qualities as a role model that Hugh Malone did for more than two decades.

Cliff Groh served as staff to the Alaska Legislature in 1981, 1982 and 1983 while Hugh Malone was a member of the state House of Representatives, and also served as special assistant to the commissioner of Revenue from 1987 to 1990 while Hugh Malone was commissioner of Department of Revenue. He thanks Terry Gardiner, Gregg Erickson, Bill Parker, Mark Wittow, Clark Gruening, John Sund, the late Jim Rhode, and the late Clifford J. Groh Sr. for contributing to his understanding of Hugh Malone.

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