JUNEAU -- Rep. Carl Gatto, a Palmer Republican who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, died Tuesday from complications related to cancer, House majority press secretary Will Vandergriff said. Gatto was 74.
A visibly shaken Rep. Bill Stoltze made the announcement on the House floor early Tuesday afternoon. The House held a moment of silence.
Gov. Sean Parnell ordered that flags be lowered to half-staff Wednesday in Gatto's honor. "Alaska has lost a great public servant who will be remembered for his wit and wisdom, his commitment to education and veterans' issues and his unwavering support for the people of the Mat-Su," Parnell said in a statement. "We will keep his wife, family, friends and colleagues in our thoughts and prayers."
Gatto had been battling prostate cancer, and earlier this year he missed part of the session to undergo radiation treatments for tumors. Last week, he was taken out of state to receive medical treatment. Vandergriff said Gatto's wife, Cathy, and the couple's four children were with Gatto at a Seattle-area hospital when he passed.
Gatto was born in New York City on Dec. 29, 1937. His professional history included work as a teacher, firefighter and engineer. His legislative biography listed family, triathlons, hunting, fishing and charity walks and races among his special interests.
Gatto was first elected to the House of Representatives in Alaska -- his home since 1968 -- in 2002. In 2011, he was among the legislators and staff who had their heads shaved for the St. Baldrick's Foundation, a charity that funds research on childhood cancer.
As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the conservative-minded Gatto had a reputation for being respectful of other viewpoints.
Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, said it was "a joy to walk into that committee for the last two years." "There were lots of issues we disagreed on, but we liked each other and he respected me, he respected my voice," she said. "And when I came in with a suggestion, he knew and trusted that I was doing it to do good, and he never questioned my motives. ... I thought we had a really good working relationship on that committee due to his treating everybody with respect."
Holmes, who fought back tears during an interview, said she kept a book in her drawer on the House floor to read during long breaks, and Gatto knew that. She said the last book he gave her is the book in her drawer now -- a murder-romance by Nora Roberts set in Alaska -- that he told her he enjoyed and thought she would too.
"That made me laugh every time," she said, "that Carl Gatto and I like the same romance novelist."
Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said Gatto was a friend and they would often stop by each other's offices. "He was always really considerate to everyone, no matter what their title was, and he just had a great sense of humor," Seaton said.
Politically, Seaton said, Gatto was known for that same type of respect, because he would let conversations continue even if he strongly disagreed with another legislator's beliefs.
"He would say what was on his mind at the time even if it was a little bit funny," Seaton said. "But he always analyzed everything deeply, and you could have a discussion about anything."
Rep. Max Gruenberg, who worked with Gatto since 2003, said Gatto would be "deeply missed. He was very human, and he always cared about keeping people safe. He left his imprint all over the place."
Gov. Parnell will be charged with picking someone to serve out the remainder of Gatto's term. Parnell will receive up to three nominees from Republicans in Gatto's district. Whomever Parnell chooses would need to be confirmed by a majority of House Republicans.
By BECKY BOHRER and AUSTIN BAIRD
Alaska Dispatch Publishing