About halfway up the state of Alaska is Fairbanks, the largest city in the interior and second only to Anchorage in the state. However, with a population of just over 33,000, it isn’t exactly a huge metroplex. The entire Fairbanks North Star Borough (the state’s equivalent of counties) is only about 100,000 people. But what the borough lacks in population, it makes up in size — if it were a state it would be larger than the five smallest and nearly as large as Massachusetts. This leads to a very diffuse population and, although about a third of the people live in Fairbanks proper, the rest are spread throughout the other towns and rural areas that dot the landscape, as well as a few rivers and wilderness areas.
The borough is also fairly diverse, with nearly a third of its citizens belonging to minority groups, many of whom, like the rest of the state, are part of native groups. The median income is well below the national average, but extremely low taxes and a relatively low cost of living help to balance this out, as well as the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) that residents are entitled to, thanks to the wealth of natural resources in the state — especially oil.
One might assume that the population of Alaska would be heavily conservative, what with its highly rural nature and generally pro-fossil fuels stance. And, while the state does go Republican in most elections, it isn’t as far to the right as one might think — and Fairbanks give insight to why this is.
On the western edge of town sits the University of Alaska Fairbanks which, like most colleges in America, is decidedly to the left, as are most of its employees and students. But balancing this out is Fort Wainwright on the opposite side of town, an Army base which, typical of military bases, pushes its denizens and surrounding areas to the right. The rural areas also lean right, but this is often offset by the high native and other minority populations which typically lean left.
This leads to a highly divided city whose politics are not as simple as they may seem on the surface. Most of the time, the conservative population can outvote the left, but not always — and in recent years the move of the Republican Party away from small government values has begun to alienate many of the right in Alaska.
In general, Alaska has a strong libertarian streak, typical of less densely populated areas in the west. Alaska was the third state to legalize recreational marijuana, for example, following only Colorado and Washington, making the Last Frontier the first red state to do so. There is also a strong individualistic streak within most Alaskans, whether on the left or the right, thanks to the state’s rugged landscape and climate that requires self-sufficiency.
Alaska is currently the only state in the nation with a Governor who is not a member of either the Republican or the Democratic parties, Bill Walker. Walker has, in the past, been a member of the GOP, but in the last election he joined with a former Democrat, Byron Mallott, to defeat the unpopular incumbent Sean Parnell whose term had been tainted by corruption and cronyism.
Fairbanks is at the center of this unusual political climate. Where its residents don’t always agree left or right, they did in 2014 when Walker won a narrow victory. In Fairbanks, his victory was wider than almost anywhere else in the state, offering a truce, however brief, between the two halves of the city.
Walker’s popularity has subsided some in recent months, primarily due to his fiscal policies which reduced their PFD by half and his proposal to institute a state income tax. He has also recently been appointed by President Trump to the Council of Governors — the first Alaskan to receive such a nod. The Council is primarily focused on defense matters, of which Walker has little experience, but his history of working both for and with oil companies make him a natural ally of the current GOP’s “drill at any cost” stances.
In Fairbanks, these ideas have proven unpopular with residents of all stripes, many of whom rely on the PFD each year. Walker’s cozy relationship with the oil companies also makes him unpopular with conservationists on both sides of the aisle, as Alaska has more wilderness and parkland than any other state by a wide margin, and Fairbanks lies at the edge of it. But the state’s reliance on oil money holds them somewhat hostage to the industry as well.
For the foreseeable future, Fairbanks residents seem to be retreating back toward the two major parties, even if it means going back to the likes of former Governor Parnell. But the left is optimistic that Trump’s historically low popularity and perceived incompetence combined with a rejuvenated Democrat Party which is much more conservative in Alaska than most other states will help them gain some ground. And Republicans loyal to Parnell and the GOP are practicing their “I told you so” speeches for every misstep Parnell makes, hoping to bring more back into their fold.
The division in Fairbanks seems to be growing faster than in other places around the nation, but for one brief moment in 2014, they were able to unite around a common candidate. Perhaps they will again one day.
correction: The original version identified Fort Wainwright as an Air Force base rather than Army. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused