Home>Campaigns>How Alaska’s congressional race is tied to N.J.

Rep. Hale Boggs (D-Louisiana) with President Lyndon Johnson. (Photo: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/University of Texas).

How Alaska’s congressional race is tied to N.J.

By David Wildstein, August 31 2022 10:00 pm

There’s a tragic link between New Jersey and the Alaska at-large congressional seat captured tonight by Mary Perltola, a Democrat who defeated Sarah Palin by three percentage points in a ranked-choice special election.

Democrat Nick Begich had flipped an open House seat in 1970 after the Republican congressman decided to run for governor.  He defeated Frank Murkowski, a future U.S. Senator and governor (and Lisa Murkowski’s father) by ten percentage points.

But in 1972, Begich had become one of the top Republican targets in the House in a year where President Richard Nixon would ultimately carry the state by almost 24 points.  His opponent was Don Young, a 39-yer-old state senator and former Fort Yukon mayor who captained a tugboat along the Yukon River, just seven miles from the Arctic Circle.

House Majority Leader Hale Boggs went to Alaska to campaign for Begich on October 16.  A small plane carrying Boggs and the 40-year-old Begich went missing,  The plane or the remains of the two congressmen and other passengers were never found.   Begich was posthumously re-elected in 1972, defeating Young by twelve percentage points.

The tie to New Jersey is through Boggs, a Louisiana Democrat whose daughter, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, was a major figure in the state until her death of cancer in 1990 at age 51.

Sigmund won a seat on the Mercer County Board of Freeholders in 1979 – one of her running mates was Paul Sollami, the father of Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello – and sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1982, finishing fourth in a field of ten candidates with 11% in a primary won by Frank Lautenberg with just 26%.

In 1983, Sigmund was elected mayor of Princeton Borough with 58% of the vote and re-elected four years later with 65%.

She sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1989, losing to Rep. Jim Florio (D-Runnemede) by a 68%-17% margin, with former Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher.

Boggs’ grandson, Paul Sigmund, had also been a Mercer County Freeholder.

After Begich was declared dead, Young ran in a 1973 special election to fill the seat and won a special election by three points.

Young went on to hold the seat for nearly 49 years, until his death in March triggered the special election to fill his seat.

The post of Dean of the House then went to Hal Rogers, an 84-year-old Republican from Kentucky.

Rogers and Smith were both elected 1980, but because seniority for Members of Congress sworn in on the same day is done in alphabetical order, Rogers is considered more senior than Smith.

But Smith is 15 years younger than Rogers and will likely wind up as Dean of the House as long as he holds on to his solidly Republican seat in New Jersey’s 4th district.

Another New Jersey tie

Perltola defeated Palin, a former governor and the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate, after the other candidate, Nick Begich III, was eliminated in ranked choice voting.  Begich is the grandson of the former congressman and the nephew of former Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Begich.

The fourth place finisher in Alaska’s non-partisan blanket primary was Dr. Al Gross, an independent who has roots in New Jersey.  Gross, an orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2020, gave up his berth in the runoff.

His father, Avrum Gross, grew up in South Orange and West Orange before moving to Alaska in the 1960s.

After law school, Avrum Gross took a job working for the Alaska Legislative Affairs Agency – their version of the Office of Legislative Services – where he forged a friendship with a young state legislator and bush pilot named Jay Hammond.

After Hammond was elected governor in 1974 – he defeated a former Democratic governor by just 287 votes statewide – he picked Av Gross, a Democrat, as attorney general of Alaska.

Al Gross’ grandfather, Joel, was a lawyer in Newark and chaired the Essex County United Jewish Appeal.

In 1948, when former Vice President Henry Wallace mounted an independent campaign for the presidency, Joel Gross served as vice chairman of the newly-formed Independent Progressive Party.  He previously served as an executive board member of the New Jersey Independent Citizens League.

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