Story last updated at 3:23 p.m. Thursday, October 31, 2002

Prevailing political winds blowing fishing industry toward Sen. Murkowski
Mike Heimbuch
point of view

For many commercial fishermen, the governor's race between Frank Murkowski and Fran Ulmer has become an extension of a most popular pastime -- fighting with each other. For political candidates who are very conscious of this, wooing the favor of commercial fishermen is more akin to Brer Rabbit dealing with the 'tar baby' than to any form of romance.

As an industry group, our willingness to be seduced by campaign promises made expressly to garner votes needs to give way to a more sophisticated awareness of the general political climate.

At first blush, fishermen may be tempted to assume that Democratic Party agendas offer more consideration to the needs of small businesses -- and that they will protect the little guy from all those big bad threatening guys. As it turns out, the threat is from groups of little guys, too -- recreational dipnetters, unregulated guides, Canadian sport fishermen, subsistence fishermen 1,000 miles upriver, trust fund babies falling in love with sea lions, gear group frictions, allocation battles, urban sprawl on the rivers, farmed fish connoisseurs -- the list goes on.

If you think the Democratic Party is going to stand against other individual interests on behalf of commercial fishermen, you have not been paying attention during the last eight years. Because commercial fishermen are not the predominant economic force in Alaska, what they need more than anything is a sense of alignment with political winds.

The Frank and Fran media sideshow is to politics what Mike Doogan's column in the Anchorage Daily News usually is to truth -- only partial, predictable and pointless.

Fran deserves credit for being articulate, aware, authentic and attractive. None of those qualities is going to bridge the great philosophical divides of this state or solve any fiscal crisis.

Frank deserves credit for being committed, connected and consistent. Like Fran, he has no magical solutions, but does have one enormous asset. He is well positioned in the prevailing political winds.

As it relates to the state economy, the importance of Murkowski's connection to the energy industry and policy makers is absolutely foolish for us to disregard. His strong support for natural resource development without political debt to extreme environmental forces is crucial to the recovery speed of our state economy.

For all the fiscal issues that divide Alaskans, the expedited development of natural resource industries offers the most hope for an agreeable long-term solution to state government funding and growth of a stable jobs base.

Within that philosophy there is full and ample room for the continuing role of Alaska's commercial fisheries. Without that quickened development there is either taxes or permanent fund program alterations or both.

As commercial fishermen with concern for the industry, we need to avoid swimming against the current. Which way that current is running in Alaska is pretty obvious.

Die-hard Democrats who would rather chew off a leg than succumb to a Republican voting snare could take comfort in the old adage about 'holding your friends close but your enemies closer.' Make no mistake -- not all bodes well for fishermen in the Democratic Party. Get past the ads.

Mike Heimbuch, a longtime Homer resident, is a commercial fishermen and political observer.

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