‘Let them talk!’ Iconic political figure Jack Coghill urges collegiality among legislators

Jack Coghill, 92, spent most of his life as a lawmaker and public servant. (Credit WikiNow)

Alaska’s lawmakers will face a multi-billion-dollar budget gap and a long list of other problems when they return to Juneau for the start of the regular session on January 16th.  But the Legislature has faced other seemingly impossible challenges over the years, according to Jack Coghill, who spent decades as a lawmaker in the Territorial House and state Senate. The 92-year-old Nenana Republican visited Fairbanks earlier this month to talk about his life and career – and offer some advice to lawmakers.

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Jack Coghill is a bit slowed-down these days, and bit bent-over. But he’s still a giant figure in Alaska history.

“Everything that we have done, we wouldn’t think for one minute that we wanted to turn the clock back and try it over again,” Coghill said.

Coghill was born in Fairbanks and grew up in Nenana, helping run his dad’s general store before serving a tour of duty during World War II. A few years later, he won the first of two terms in the Territorial House before being elected as a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention. He’s one of the last two surviving delegates and his is the third signature on the document. Coghill says one of the first disputes delegates had to settle was whether Alaska should remain a territory with a largely itinerant population or, as Coghill and the majority believed, it should become a state.

Coghill, at left in first row, was elected to serve on the first state Senate after Alaska gained statehood in 1959. (Alaska State Library-Historical Collections)

“If you’ll read the history of the United States, they didn’t want a whole bunch of people share-cropping and all the rest of it,” Coghill said. “They wanted good, solid citizens.”

After statehood, Coghill served three terms in the state Senate before being elected in 1990 as lieutenant governor on the Alaska Independence Party ticket with legendary Governor Wally Hickel. Except for that brief fling with a third party, Coghill was known throughout his political career as “Mr. Republican.” And because back then Democrats dominated the Legislature, Coghill was always in the minority – which, he says, led him to understand the need to include their views when governing.

“I think the most important thing that I did was that I was always making sure that the minority had a chance to tell you what they had to say,” Coghill said. “I’d say ‘Let them talk! Let them do their thing!’ ”

Coghill concedes that’s still important, now that Democrats are in the minority – but, ever the partisan, he hastens to add: “That’s where they belong!”

Jack Coghill with his son, Sen. John Coghill, during a 2006 visit to the Legislature. (Credit johncoghill.blogspot.com)

Jack’s son, John, who followed his dad’s footsteps into the Legislature and who now represents North Pole in the Senate, says the point is that it’s OK to disagree politically, and have at it during debate. But, John says, his dad believes it’s essential to never lose sight of the fact that we’re all Alaskans, and all want what’s best for the state and its people.

John cited the example of his dad’s long friendship with Bill Egan, the Democrat who served with him in the Territorial House and as Alaska’s first governor.

“I can remember him and Bill Egan sitting in our living room and having a pretty heated argument over some of the issues they were taking about, when I went out to play. I was just a kid,” the younger Coghill said. “I’d come back in, and they were laughing, having a good old time.”

John Coghill, himself a Republican who’s also fought his share of political battles, says that stuck with him.

“That showed me that you can disagree with somebody intensely, and still be a good friend with him,” John Coghill said.

Both Jack, and John, say they hope lawmakers will exercise that sort of collegiality when they head to Juneau three weeks from now.