Former Alaska Governor Keith Miller died March 2 at age 94. Miller was Alaska’s Secretary of State – a position that no longer exists in Alaska’s government – under Gov. Wally Hickel, and became governor when Hickel left in early 1969 to be Richard Nixon’s Secretary of the Interior. To this day, Miller remains the only Alaska governor who was never elected governor.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Miller ran for governor in 1970, but lost to Bill Egan. Miller ran again in 1974 but finished a distant third in the Republican primary to upstart Jay Hammond and his old boss, Wally Hickel. Much later, Sean Parnell would be the second person to become governor when his boss, Sarah Palin, quit, but Parnell would successfully run for office – well, one time, anyway – leaving Miller with his unique distinction in Alaska history.
Miller was kind of the antithesis of a consummate politician. It was Miller who named the winter haul road from Livengood, Alaska to Sagwon – the future Prudhoe Bay – after his former boss: The Walter J. Hickel Highway. As a couple of University of Alaska professors had warned, when spring came the “Hickel Highway” turned into the world’s longest permafrost sinkhole, a canal of mud and water. That political albatross hung around Hickel’s neck the rest of his career.
Miller was far too friendly with the 1960s’ version of Big Oil. While he famously presided over the lease auction of what turned out to be the Prudhoe Bay oil field, which netted Alaska some $900 million – $5.8 billion in 2019 dollars – the sloppily drafted leases led to years of litigation with the oil industry. And a lot of folks think that $900 million was an inadequate price for the largest oil field in North America, that in the rush to cash in on the big discovery, They argue Miller sold Alaska out.
For a long time, WC argued that Keith Miller was Alaska’s worst governor. And given Alaska’s checkered history of governors, that was no small distinction. But Miller has clearly been consigned to middle of the pack, as the voters of Alaska, in their wisdom, gave us first Frank Murkowski, next Sarah Palin, and then Sean Parnell. It’s too early to add Mike Dunleavy to that list, although it’s looking likely.
Miller had some good ideas: he thought the lease sale proceeds should be turned into a permanent fund and not just spent. But he lacked the political skills of Jay Hammond, who forced the idea through seven years later.
But mostly he suffered from the blunders of his former boss, Hickel. Not just the “Hickel Highway,” which helped ignite Alaska nascent conservation movement. And while it is largely forgotten now, it was Hickel’s decision to purchase the M/V Wickersham and Miller who got to live with the consequences. The Wickersham was foreign-built, and under the 1920s’ Jones Act, was thereby disqualified to serve between U.S. ports.1 Her run from Seattle to Alaska had to include a stop in Canada. Her bow-loading car ramps didn’t work on most ferry ports, and her draft was too deep to allow her to navigate a lot of the routes. All those stories broke under Miller’s administration.
WC met Keith Miller a couple of times. He was an affable, friendly guy, in a hale-and-well-met, cigar-chomping kind of way. He never met a development project he didn’t like and enthusiastically support. And, hey, he was far from the worst governor Alaska has suffered.
R.I.P. Keith Miller, 1925-2019.
- If you see an ancient bumpersticker saying, “Sink the Jones Act,” now you know why. ↩