The Three Musketeers, legislator-style
It’s been 40 years since Eagle River’s Sam Cotten first won a seat in the Alaska state Legislature. Back in 1974, he’d decided to run for the House of Representatives on the spur of the moment, after the filing deadline for legislative candidates was extended from June to July.
“My coworkers at Xerox Corporation were amazed,” he said recently. “They got a good laugh out of the fact that I was running for office.”
Voters took him seriously. Cotten, a Navy vet who’d been Chugiak High School’s first student body president in 1964 and 1965, became part of the Democratic House majority when he took office in 1975.
Close on his heels was Randy Phillips, an Eagle River Republican with a lifelong interest in public service. Phillips had served as Chugiak High School’s student body president four years after Cotten and had gone on to earn a bachelors degree in history and political science from Alaska Methodist University in 1973.
He was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 1976 and eventually became the second-longest-serving state Legislator in Alaska’s history.
Rick Halford, a commercial pilot and guide-business owner from Chugiak, won a seat in the Alaska House in 1978. Like Phillips, he had received a bachelors degree from Alaska Methodist University in history and political science. Unlike Phillips, he hadn’t initially envisioned putting his political science education to use.
Yet after he accepted an invitation to a Republican Party caucus, one thing led to another and he found himself at the Party’s state convention. “I had no idea I was going to file for office,” he said. “But there were a bunch of wonderful people who encouraged me—and built up my ego.”
Fast forward to a snowy spring day in 2014, when the former legislators, whom Phillips refers to as “The Three Musketeers,” met in an Eagle River home to look back on their time together in the state Legislature. (All three served in the Senate after serving in the House.)
Their long affiliation shone through as they talked story—confirming details and finishing each other’s thoughts. Many of their sentences started with the words, “Do you remember …?”
There was, of course, much to remember. While in office, the men tackled some of the state’s biggest issues: the Permanent Fund and PFD; Alaska’s 1986 recession; the Exxon Valdez oil spill—and the resulting influx of money to the state; a mushrooming population; and oil-tax legislation.
“Fact is, I think this community appreciated the fact that all of us ended up in leadership positions in the Legislature and championed the big issues of the day,” Cotten said. “We were closely working with the folks here in Eagle River and Chugiak, so I think they always felt like they had a voice in the big deals that affected Alaska.”
Because Cotten is a Democrat and Phillips and Halford are Republicans, they often found themselves on opposite sides of statewide issues.
“We fought like hell over oil taxes,” Halford said. “But on district things, the rest of Anchorage knew that they were going to have to get all of us or they were getting none of us.”
Their unity was critical in bringing much-needed capital projects to Chugiak and Eagle River. “We had a lot of woods here,” Phillips said. “All of a sudden we had a bunch of people coming in and they wanted schools tomorrow when the houses were built yesterday.”
In 1985, the three worked with others to establish the Chugiak Birchwood Eagle River Rural Road Service Area to build, maintain and plow local roads. Until that point, many roads remained unpaved, and residents plowed their own neighborhoods. “Everybody knew about our roads,” Cotten said. “It was all gravel, everywhere.”
The legislators walked a delicate line between trying to modernize Chugiak-Eagle River’s buildings and services and helping maintain the area’s rural identity—especially when it came to Chugiak’s volunteer fire department. “We sometimes had to coerce (Anchorage-based legislators) into not messing with our fire department,” Halford said. “It was a continuous battle.”
Ignoring fellow Republicans or Democrats who accused them of consorting with the “other party,” Cotten, Phillips and Halford tightened their working relationship and became more effective through time. “It evolved,” Halford said. “It worked better and better over the years.” When the Democrats formed the majority early on, Cotten took the lead on legislation; when the Republicans formed the majority, Phillips or Halford did.
They divvied up the rest of the work according to their strengths. “I probably did less legwork knowing Randy would do it, and Randy probably did less brow-beating, knowing I would do it,” Halford said.
Such efficiency benefited constituents, especially when it came to basic services people now take for granted, like water and sewer lines in Eagle River. “Some of these things would have happened anyway,” Cotten said. “But we were able to make sure they happened quickly, that response times were short. Perhaps if you’d had a divided delegation or a lot of personal issues, it wouldn’t have gone that way.”
Cotten, Phillips and Halford spent a combined 34 years in the House and 32 years in the Senate, a long time to help constituents and solidify friendships. During their afternoon together, they discussed the kind of legacy they had left.
“Our working relationship, the synergy, the close connection with the community, I think they were all major elements of what I consider our success,” Cotten said.
“Each constituent has a story about working with us together or individually,” Phillips said. “That’s the legacy we left.”
“I hope the mistakes are outweighed by the good decisions,” Halford said.
The others paused.
“I like that,” Cotten said.
Phillips nodded in agreement. “That’s good enough,” he said.
Chris Lundgren is an Eagle River-based freelance writer and author of the new book, “Legendary Locals of Chugiak-Eagle River” from Arcadia Publishing.