Tongass Democrats honor Alaskans with an admirable past

Historical pictures of Alaska U.S. Senators Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening compiled for the first Bartlett-Gruening Dinner by Geoffrey Bacon. (Courtesy Geoffrey Bacon)

Historical pictures of Alaska U.S. Senators Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening compiled for the first Bartlett-Gruening Dinner by Geoffrey Bacon. (Click to see the full presentation courtesy Geoffrey Bacon)

Annual Democratic fundraisers held across the country this time of year have long been called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, after Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

Tongass Democrats have changed the name.  The Southeast Alaska group held its first Bartlett-Gruening Dinner on Sunday in Juneau, to honor Alaskans with an admirable past, instead of a president with a questionable history.

Jefferson was the third president of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson also was a slave holder and some Democrats say that’s a blot on his history.

Jackson was the seventh president.  He may be most remembered for the Indian Removal Act, the forced relocation and resettlement of Native American tribes from southeastern states to present-day Oklahoma.

Jackson hailed from Tennessee, where long-time Juneau resident Connie Munro lived for 13 years before moving to Alaska.

“I was just feeling really uncomfortable that President Jackson was a celebration — the Democrats’ annual dinner,” she said.

Munro and her husband Alan moved to Juneau in 1971 and affiliated with local Democrats.

Over the years, Connie Munro has learned more about Jackson and wonders why anyone known for the Trail of Tears would be the poster president for the modern-day party.

“You know it was such a horrible thing and I just felt it was real amazing that in Alaska they would honor someone who did this,” she said.

Tongass Democrats’ chair Nancy Courtney said party officials had discussed a name change. Then a handful of local Democrats started boycotting the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinners. She also heard from Sen. Mark Begich’s office. Begich had received complaints about the name of the annual Juneau dinner, where he has been keynote speaker for the last five years.

Last year a subcommittee was created to come up with a new name.  Munro and Kim Metcalfe were on it.

“We thought that naming it after two great Alaskans, our first U.S. senators, would be a better way to go,” Metcalfe said. “It doesn’t hurt to change things and let’s not recognize presidents who have done bad things in the past.”

The significance of Senators Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening is clear. Both men advocated for statehood, helped guide Alaska into statehood and served as the new state’s first U.S. senators for nearly a decade.  Both were Democrats.

At Sunday’s inaugural Bartlett-Gruening Dinner, Democrat Phil Smith reminded party faithful that Bartlett’s and Gruening’s statues are even in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

“Each state of the union is invited to place two statues of their most significant citizens and the two statues that our state has selected to put in the United States Capitol are those of Edward Lewis Bartlett — of course we knew him as Bob, because when he was a little kid, his sister couldn’t say Edward Lewis so she called him Bob and it stuck his whole life,” Smith said. “And the other statue is Ernest Henry Gruening.”

From now on, Courtney says, the annual Democratic fundraiser will be called the Bartlett-Gruening Dinner.

The Republican version of the event is the Lincoln Day Dinner.

Listen to Bartlett-Gruening history:

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