FAIRBANKS, Alaska — There is still a feel of the old Klondike in Alaska. A family can build a house without a lot of permits here. You can grow a little marijuana and nobody will bother you. Signs saying "No Shooting" sometimes add the word Please out of respect for folks who don't like taking orders. People here have a pretty firm idea of what freedom means to them.
So, at first glance, it is something of a curiosity to find Alaska embroiled in an all-out political debate this summer over something so seemingly part of its sourdough heritage--gambling.
In a primary election Tuesday, Alaskans will vote on a 16-line ballot proposition designed to open the way for legalized gambling--all varieties of it. Currently, gambling is limited to charity bingo and ubiquitous "pull tabs," those little paper novelties with which, like scratch-off lottery tickets, you win cash for matching numbers.
Now, the idea of enlarging gambling and making it a state-regulated industry has triggered a debate over just what is Alaska, and what should it be.
A small, loose-knit group of businessmen and a political consultant claim credit for the gambling ballot proposition and for obtaining the 23,000 signatures to qualify it for a vote.
A spokesman says that the motive for the measure is simple: Alaska's great outdoor beauty makes it a desirable tourist destination, but gambling will give visitors something exciting and extra to do at night and during the long winters.
"Face it, people come here and in the evenings there aren't a lot of things to do," said Jeff Macktaz, an Anchorage music and concert producer. "Opponents paint a picture of Atlantic City or Las Vegas. I don't want that, either. I see more of a Lake Tahoe."
Macktaz is one of those who helped qualify the initiative in a drive that has taken two years. One other key backer has moved to Florida during that time. Still others are hard to identify or contact. There is no headquarters and no visibly organized campaign behind the proposition.
According to Macktaz, this is just a laid-back, easygoing effort to see how Alaskans feel about legalized gambling. If it is passed during this election, the measure requires local approval before any gambling licenses are issued.
"Some people think the Trumps and the Mirages are standing at the border waiting to come in. Not so, they don't even return phone calls," Macktaz said.
Well, perhaps the big casino operators are not licking their chops at the idea of opening the Far North to gambling. But opponents aren't taking any chances.
"This would change Alaska more than anything since the pipeline," said Gov. Steve Cowper, a Democrat and the measure's most vociferous critic. " . . . Full-scale casino gambling is fundamentally at odds with the kind of Alaska I would like to live in. And it comes down to a matter of personal values."
Yes, but what about Alaska's whiskey, gold and gambling heritage?
Cowper and others say that is different. He said he would not object to what is known as "historic" gambling, the kind that is permitted in Dawson, in Canada's Yukon--old saloons with chorus lines, stand-up bars and gambling games. Theme-park gambling.
And Cowper also would not object to opening state ferry boats to gambling, just as the cruise lines have been.
But what has the governor and others fuming is the vision of huge gambling industrialists moving into Alaska, without regard to the sensibilities of its half-million residents, many of whom are here because they want to be away from the neon rat-race of the Lower 48.
Alaskans will have their say on their future next week.