Thank God it’s Friday: The political nicknames edition

Thank God it's Friday facts A few weeks ago the Washington Post’s political blog posted a piece listing what they considered the top ten best nicknames in politics. “Bubba/Slick Willie” made the list, of course. Sen. Arlen Specter, or “Snarlin’” Arlen was there. So was my personal favorite: “Governor Moonbeam,” for California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Scholars have all sorts of theories as to why we get and give nicknames. One writing in the journal of American Anthropology theorizes that for the Zinacantan tribe, who live in the southern part of the Mexican central highlands, nicknames serve as a type of mnemonic device and means of social efficiency. Another scholar writing in the British Journal of Educational Psychology says that “name-calling and nicknames in particular are ambiguous social events that can serve positive as well as negative goals.” However, the scholar writes that nasty nicknames in the schoolyard are more common than positive ones, and that such nicknames are “prevalent and hurtful features of school life.”

From what I was able to read about them, Alaska politics, indeed Alaska itself, seems to have a lot in common with the Zinacantan tribe, say nothing of a schoolyard.

In any case, whether due to mnemonics, social efficiency, or bullying, people in power in this state have received their fair share of nicknames.

I do the Washington Post three better. After asking around, I came up with 13 of what I consider the best, listed here in no particular order:

  • Unit One: This one goes to Gov. Bill Sheffield, who was dubbed such by his security detail. His staff, particularly now BP lobbyist Paul Quesnel, grabbed onto it, and it spread.
  • Disco Ray: Ray Metcalfe, who was a state lawmaker in the late 1970s, explained how he received the moniker in an interview with the Anchorage Press. “I do like ducks. When I was younger my friends nick-named me ‘Duck.’ When I got into the legislature there was a song that came out, “Disco Duck,” and I like to dance… so for a while I became Disco Duck. My political foes wanted to make that stick so they started calling me Disco Ray… And there wasn’t anything I could do about it, so I just started to answer to it.” Unbuttoned shirts, chains around his neck, and the double knit polyester pants that he wore also helped.
  • The Great Amender: Rep Max Gruenberg got this one for his prolific amendments. He was the subject of ridicule one year at the legislative skits where they sang a song about “Max the great amender” to the tune of “The Great Pretender.
  • The High Plains Drifter: The cowboy boot wearing, mustachioed Gov. Steve Cowper got this one from the Anchorage Daily News’ Shelia Toomey, who stole it from another reporter in the newsroom who used to whistle the tune to the movie whenever he wrote a story about Cowper.
  • Teflon Tony: This self-explanatory one was given to Gov. Tony Knowles. Finally, something stuck.
  • Frank the Bank: Frank Murkowski got this when he was in the U.S. Senate. It was often used when he was governor. Its genesis was his role as president of the Alaska National Bank of the North, which failed under his leadership.
  • Llama Lady: Republican oil booster Sen. Jan Faiks was nothing if not well-coiffed and cheery. In fact, legislative skits characterized her as wearing a cheerleading outfit. So, that this expensive-clothes wearing, sorority type would raise lamas, for fun, was an image that stuck.
  • McPipeline: Lt. Gov. Steve McAlpine was from Valdez, the terminus of TAPs. He liked oil. He liked pipelines.
  • Mitch ado about nothing: This one for Sen. Mitch Abood needs no explanation.
  • The congressman for all Alaska (except for Ear and those who didn’t vote for him): This, once again, was conceived by Shelia Toomey after Young made a remark about representing only those who voted for him.
  • Rambona: Anybody who ever met Rep. Ramona Barnes would understand why she got this moniker, which went viral after ADN cartoonist Peter Dunlap-Shohl took his pen to it.
  • Ethan Spendawitz: House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz was never in the majority and therefore didn’t have much control over state spending. But still, he was viewed by many as a liberal spender so the name stuck. Frankly, it could have been worse for him.
  • Captain Zero: Gov. Sean Parnell will never shake this one, which came from Rep. Don Young during a public radio interview debate when Parnell was trying to take his seat from him. You know it’s eternal when Gregg Erickson, the editor-at-large of the Alaska Budget Report, was allowed to get away with writing a column in the Juneau Empire defending Parnell with the following headline: “Governor’s ‘Captain Zero’ image (mostly) undeserved.”
  • And of course there’s Uncle Ted. (Hello up there Uncle Ted!)

These are what I came up with. Some new ones are beginning to form. “Afghan Dan,” for the soon to be Republican Senate candidate. “The Tall One,” for Sen. Mike Dunleavy, who’s like 8 feet tall. We’ll see if these stick. If anybody out there has others, please email them to me at or tweet me at @Amanda_Coyne.


4 thoughts on “Thank God it’s Friday: The political nicknames edition

  1. Sean P. Ryan

    There were many nicknames for Tony Knowles, if I remember correctly. “Governor Bike Trail” (which more recently spawned the description of Luke Hopkins as “Mayor Wood Stove”) and “Phony Knowles” come immediately to mind. “Mr. Tulsa”, which has a legitimate history (Knowles was the first baby born in Tulsa in 1943) was later used against him in the vein of his being perceived as a slick Okie outsider (there was also “Tony Slick”, which wasn’t quite as popular). Fritz Pettyjohn was fond of referring to the ADN as the “Anchorage Daily Knowles”.

    BTW, are we missing the plethora of derisive nicknames for George Jacko, circa 1993? Or, for that matter, “Left Gara”?

  2. Margy Johnson

    Machine Gun Foster from Nome. Great guy, could diffuse most difficult situations with humor. Loved his guns.

  3. Linda Kellen Biegel

    You forgot “Rude, Lewd, Mitch Abood,” which was popular among the women who knew him at the time. He and his son the politician used to try and “tag team.”

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