For 18 years, one man has defined politics in the city of Kenai. After today, that's all set to change when Kenai residents go to the polls to elect a replacement for John Williams, under whose leadership Kenai has seen a remarkable amount of change.
When Williams took office in 1986, Kenai -- along with the state of Alaska in general -- was suffering through the beginnings of an economic slump brought on by falling oil prices and the end of the trans-Alaska pipeline boom of the 1970s.
In an interview last week, Williams said the job of mayor did not seem, at the time, like something anyone in their right mind would choose to take on.
"It was the absolute worst time to become mayor," Williams said. "We were in the middle of the biggest economic downturn in state history."
At the time, Williams was considering the idea of building a small brewery in town. His plans were derailed when two Kenai attorneys, Bob Cowan and Jeff Jefferson, approached him with the idea of running for mayor to replace the outgoing Tom Wagoner.
"I thought, 'I'm in deep trouble. What are two attorneys doing sitting in my office?'" he said.
Williams wasn't sure he wanted to take the job, but after a long period of consideration, he decided he'd give it a try.
"I filed my papers on the last day of eligibility," he said.
When Williams took office, Kenai was in many ways a much different place than it is today. Only one stoplight, at the corner of the Kenai Spur Highway and Willow Street, had been installed. The complex of downtown buildings that includes Home Depot and Safeway was a vacant lot.
There was no Challenger Learning Center or Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, no Vintage Pointe senior housing, no juvenile detention center or PRISM fire training center or FAA Flight Training Center. The new Alaska courthouse had yet to be built, as had the Kenai Animal Shelter and the Kenai Multipurpose Facility.
Williams is quick to point out he's not entirely responsible for any of these projects coming to town. However, it's hard to argue that any single person has had as big a hand in the development of the community over the past two decades as the man whose term as mayor is longer than any of Kenai's previous nine mayors.
Williams started his career in politics as a young volunteer on the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign and remembers the 1960 Democratic Convention as the moment when he realized politics was for him.
"That's kind of what started the whole thing," he said. "The excitement of being with all these important political people."
Shortly after that convention, Williams moved to Alaska, where it didn't take him long to get into politics.
"As soon as I came to Alaska, I was immediately involved with the politics up in Fairbanks," he said.
From that point on, he was hooked.
During his more than 40 years in politics, Williams has met and gotten to know nearly every major political figure in the state. And he's got a story to tell about each one.
While serving as the chair of the Alaska Pipe Trades Association, Williams said he was approached by Wally Hickel asking for his support if Hickel could win the 1966 governor's race.
"I said, 'I don't think that's going to happen, Wally, because I don't think you're going to get elected,'" he said.
After Hickel won the election, Williams caught up with him at a meeting.
"I said, 'I'm here to eat crow,'" he said.
From that point on, Williams said he and Hickel had a strong working relationship that lasted through Hickel's second term as governor in 1990.
Williams goes back a long way with all the big figures of Alaska politics, and his office wall is lined with pictures of him with governors, senators and even President Bill Clinton.
Williams' legacy likely will be in his desire to see big things happen in Kenai, and his long-standing relationships with the state's power brokers is something he credits with making many of his dreams become a reality.
"People say to me, 'What gives you the power to walk into the governor's office and talk to him like an old friend?'" he said. "Well, most were good friends of mine."
His relationship with Sen. Ted Stevens dates back to when Williams was still in the military, flying a KC-130 tanker. After a mission to Knoxville, Tenn., Williams picked up the senator in Washington, D.C., then flew nonstop back to Anchorage so the senator could see a couple of new Navy destroyers at the Port of Anchorage. Williams made the whole flight in one trip, without sleep.
"I made the whole trip in one day and never missed a lick," he remembered.
Federal funds for Kenai have been a big part of such projects as the Challenger Learning Center, the flight training center and the fire training center. Williams said Stevens always has been willing to listen to the city's point of view.
"He's always had time, whether he could do anything for you or not," he said.
Williams' fingerprints are on nearly every major project that's come to Kenai since he took office. That's not unintentional. It's likely he will b remembered as someone motivated by the idea that Kenai needs growth and development of such projects to survive past the oil days.
But despite presiding over a period of rapid growth in the city, Williams is most proud of the fact that he's leaving office with the city's financial house in order. In 1986, the city had fixed assets of $64 million. Today, that number is more than $150 million.
Under Williams' tenure, the city has spent nearly $90 million on capital projects and still has managed to reduce its overall debt from $5.4 million to zero. Kenai also has managed to increase the amount of money it has in the bank from $28 million to just under $40 million.
"The city isn't exactly broke," he said.
Williams said he couldn't have accomplished anything as mayor without the help of everyone within the city government, from the administrative staff to the city council.
"One person very seldom has the power to do things," he said. "It takes people, it takes a team effort, it takes everybody singing off the same sheet of music."
Williams said he still believes there's much work to be done for the city. One of the biggest issues facing cities like Kenai is the state's cuts to municipal revenue sharing. He would like to see some sort of program put in place that splits the Alaska Permanent Fund so the state gets enough to pay its bills, dividends are still paid to citizens, and funding is restored to local municipalities.
"We need to develop a community dividend program," he said.
He's not sure if he'll seek another political office in the future, but judging by his long past in politics, it's not likely Williams is quite done thinking big just yet. He said the Pebble Gold Mine project intrigues him, and the ongoing Kenai bluff erosion project is far from complete.
In the immediate future, Williams said he wants to spend some time with his wife, Sharon, and their seven grandchildren. He's also got a big project going on at home.
"I'm hooking up a new hot tub," he said.
Asked if the future holds more public office, Williams would only say he's keeping his options open.
"We'll take a look at the political scene a year from now," he said.
That's typical. After more than four decades in politics, John Williams is still looking to the future.
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