I was first introduced to Gary when he was considering running for the Legislature in 2016 and I was a partner in a fledgling campaign management firm with an eye on a bipartisan coalition in the State House.
We didn’t really want to work with Gary. Working campaigns on the three-hours-drive-away Peninsula seemed like an unpalatable proposition and we weren’t sure Gary was all that electable anywhere. He had a voice that sounded like the grounds at the bottom of a sloppily-made cup of coffee look… like a shovel going into mud.
But Gary was set on working with us. Begrudgingly we began by helping him out here and there, and slowly he won us over. For me, the tipping point came about a month before the election. I was sitting at Gary’s kitchen table, answering emails while keeping one ear on the conversation between him, his wife Helen and my seventeen-year-old brother, who was helping them create a Facebook ads account and teaching them the difference between a “like” and a “comment.”
Gary sat silently like a student in the first row. My brother nervously proceeded to introduce the concept of a profile picture. What seemed so basic to us was near impenetrable to Gary, and yet he sat there in humility, fully acknowledging that there were things he didn’t understand and was eager to learn.
After a series of experiences like that between our young team and Gary, we were all in.
Once Gary had won his underdog primary in 2016, we stayed in close touch. Whenever we came through Kenai we’d crash at Gary’s house or have a meal with him and Helen at Louie’s. I distinctly remember one morning when we’d scheduled to have breakfast after a big night of dancing at Salmonfest. The first of us arrived more than an hour late, looking worse for the wear. But Gary wasn’t fussed. He and Helen finished breakfast number one, then moved a table over to have breakfast number two with us. When the last member of our party showed up a full two hours late, Gary said goodbye to us and then sat and had breakfast number three with them. We were embarrassed but Gary told us not to worry. He wasn’t perfect and he didn’t expect us to be.
After the 2018 election, with the Walker/Mallott campaign abandoned and moderate conservatives like Jason Grenn and Paul Seaton beaten, it looked like the promise of Alaska’s bipartisan potential had been snuffed out.
But as has been well documented, Gary stood in the gap. He told the truth others didn’t want to admit and named the dysfunctional elephant in the room: that there was no way a 21-member majority with David Eastman as the 21st member could pass a sustainable budget. That maybe Alaska’s fiscal challenges couldn’t be solved by one group beating another into submission.
Gary took all kinds of heat for his decision. He lost friends over it and was excoriated on social media. Not to mention, he’d signed up to work with some people that in many cases didn’t understand his values and in some cases didn’t trust him. But he did it anyway.
As a young Republican and Soldotna High grad recently wrote in the Peninsula Clarion, “If you haven’t had the chance, find some time to talk to Gary. He will tell it like it is, even if you’re yelling in his face.”
The sad thing about doing the right thing is that it often doesn’t come with medals. People don’t like being told what they don’t want to hear and your critics know that the best way to neutralize you is to attack your honesty and integrity head on.
The night he died I had dinner with three friends who also knew Gary. During a lull in the conversation, one of them turned to me and said, “You don’t think Gary voted for Trump do you?” I thought about it and then said, “I don’t know who he voted for, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t.”
As someone raised in the Christian faith, and as a progressive, it’s challenging for me to understand how someone can support Donald Trump. I felt uncomfortable acknowledging this potential reality about Gary to my friend, a Democrat.
It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized: this was the whole point.
The value of Gary wasn’t, as Alaska’s resident Rita Skeeter has been so bent on insinuating, that he was some Machiavellian liberal secret-weapon who’d managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes to net one more seat for the blue team. Gary was a Republican. Gary grew up dirt poor in a rural part of the country that votes Republican. Gary ran a construction company and came out of the oil industry. Gary won races in Republican Kenai because enough people that knew and worked with him trusted his conservative roots and beliefs.
It just so happened that Gary was also a member of one political party that was willing to work with people from the other. He was honest and he believed that doing the job meant finding a way to get the job done.
I’ve worked near ten years in Alaska politics and in that time I’ve drafted probably dozens of editorials for other people, but never submitted one under my own name. I’m doing that now because my friend is dead and if we couldn’t help get him reelected then it seemed like the least we could manage to do was say a few good words in his memory.
But I’m also writing this because as I sat blinking back the tears on Friday, I realized there aren’t that many Gary’s left. Gary was far from perfect. He wasn’t very organized, he was not particularly eloquent, he wasn’t even (as he often liked to joke about over a beer) very conventionally attractive.
But Gary was humble enough to know that he didn’t have all the answers and that solving complicated problems takes working together. He was genuinely curious about other people and looked for the good in them. Again, he was someone who believed that doing the job means getting the job done.
Those things are values too.
Somewhere there’s a big black pair of dirty construction boots that needs filling. There’s an empty seat on a rusty political bulldozer likely purchased for too much money at a heavy equipment auction in Fairbanks (Gary’s idea of a good time).
Alaskans want to know which of our current elected officials are going to modify their approach to politics in honor of Gary’s memory. Alaskans want to know from which corner of the state the next Gary is going to step up and run.
The pay is crap, the verbal abuse can be terrific, and the workplace culture is toxic. But we’ve got big problems to solve and it’s going to require humility and hard work to get the job done.
Alaska needs a few more Gary Knopps. Maybe that could be you?
John-Henry Heckendorn is a partner at the Ship Creek Group, an Anchorage communications firm, and also works remotely for Airbnb.