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Alaska’s ‘High Plains Drifter’ About to Ride Off Into the Sunset

November 17, 1990

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) _ Steve Cowper, the ″High Plains Drifter″ of Alaska politics, is about to ride off into the sunset again after four bumpy years in the saddle as governor.

His single term will come to an end Dec. 3, when Wally Hickel is sworn in as Alaska’s seventh chief executive. Cowper, who at 52 years old has had a variety of careers, says he has not yet decided what his next one will be.

A private man who admits a low tolerance for public life, Cowper plans only to head for a warmer locale - Mexico. There he will relax in obscurity for a couple of months before returning to his adopted hometown of Fairbanks.

It’s a fitting exit for the restless politician whose colleagues in the Legislature years ago nicknamed him after the Clint Eastwood movie cowboy - a take-no-guff drifter of few words.

Democrat Cowper expects a smooth transition to Hickel, whom he considers a friend. The veteran Republican won the governor’s race on the Alaskan Independence Party ticket Nov. 6. Cowper predicts Hickel will be more progressive than many of his conservative supporters expect.

Cowper’s latest departure from politics comes 12 years after he left his seat in the state House. Both times he decided not to seek re-election.

″Some people want to cling to public office until they fall over dead,″ the Virginia-born Cowper says in his thick Southern drawl. ″I’ve never been one of that crowd. I got out of public office before voluntarily, and happily I might add.″

This time Cowper leaves behind a state with an improved economy and a higher international profile, but with a dubious future that remains tied to the up-and-down fate of world oil prices.

In an interview, Cowper said his inability to wean Alaska from its dependence on oil revenue was a major frustration as oil prices plummeted and then recovered three times during his term.

His efforts to promote state income and sales taxes failed when rising oil prices eliminated the pressure on lawmakers to turn to the more stable revenue sources common in other states.

″One of the problems here is that people who stand for public office, for as long as I can remember, have always talked about what’s going to happen when the oil money runs out. But it never seems to run out,″ Cowper said.

″People have gotten to the point where they don’t really believe it, or they don’t believe it’s going to happen in their time. It’s very difficult to get anybody to sacrifice anything for something that may happen three years from now or 30 years from now.″

And what about Hickel’s promises to reduce the budget?

″My observation would be that normally, if you have a large surplus, it’s extraordinarily difficult to make major budget cuts,″ Cowper said. Because of the rise in oil prices since Iraq invaded Kuwait, Alaska could reap up to a billion-dollar surplus next year.

Cowper considers his efforts to improve the economy as the top achievement of his administration.

″When I was elected, the Alaska economy was in a very severe downturn,″ he said. ″It was clear that the No. 1 thing on any governor’s agenda had to be to do whatever was necessary to put the Alaskan economy back on track.

″You can look at the figures today and tell that that was done,″ he said.

Cowper cites as examples the successful effort to get a Federal Express cargo hub in Anchorage, the administration’s promotion of international trade, its work with federal regulators to get the state’s banking system in order, and his 1988 jobs bill.

The outgoing governor says he also laid the groundwork for future trade and social ties with the Soviet Far East.

In the Legislature, Cowper’s victories included the tightening of a major oil-tax break and major oil-spill legislation after the Exxon Valdez disaster. But he also endured some major defeats.

Cowper repeatedly was unable to get one of his favorite ideas, the education fund, through the Legislature. The proposal would have set aside earnings from the Permanent Fund, Alaska’s oil-wealth savings account, to pay for education as oil revenues decline.

That defeat was symbolic of what Cowper says is a tendency ″for today’s generation to grab everything they can as cheaply as possible and leave the next generation holding the bag.″

″I think we have a duty to make the world better for the next generation, and I frankly don’t think many people agree with me. But almost everything we did reflected that philosophy,″ he said.

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