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The real Lisa Murkowski just stood up

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 26, 2017
  • Published July 26, 2017

Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks with reporters about health care legislation outside the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 18. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski made a courageous vote on health care Tuesday. Her truer self is showing through.

The motion to begin debate on the Republicans' secretly crafted health care bill passed after Vice President Mike Pence broke a tie. Murkowski voted no, alone in her party except for Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, to defend the committee process of developing bills in public.

Sometimes it has been disappointing to see Murkowski tack politically in the face of party pressure or an approaching election, but Alaskans have watched her grow in the Senate since her father appointed her in 2002.

To understand her new position, you have to know where she came from.

Murkowski is a careful person and always struck me as a bit shy, not the sort to resist authority. But she is deeply a product of her state and her family. She believes in Alaska and in the public process.

In her Senate service, I hear the voices of the past, especially of Sen. Ted Stevens, whom she channels in the development-versus-environment debate — even as that voice becomes increasingly outdated and off-key in today's Alaska.

Stevens was devoted to Alaska. In his Senate career, he chose the path that would yield the most power to benefit our state rather than national prestige, including being a party soldier when necessary.

Stevens came to the Senate, also by appointment, in 1968, when Alaska was poor and we needed, above all, a powerful champion in Washington.

That dedication is most of what you need to know about Murkowski's vote.

She studies issues and, unlike many of today's politicians, bases her views on reality. The health care bills under consideration would be disastrous for Alaska.

The most important part of the legislation is the rollback of Medicaid coverage, a program reaching a fourth of our population. The proposal would also cost up to 5,000 jobs.

Murkowski figured this out early and in February laid down a marker that would protect her from the political winds in a speech to the Alaska Legislature.

"As we engage in this debate over repeal and replace, or whatever the terminology is that you care to use, the discussion that is the elephant in the room is Medicaid expansion.

"Here in Alaska, some 27,000 Alaskans — 28,000 actually — now have coverage for the first time. Which means they have access to care for the first time.

"While I clearly have concerns about the expansion's long-term costs, it has strengthened our Native health system and reduced the number of uninsured that are coming into our emergency rooms.

"So as long as this Legislature wants to keep the expansion, Alaska should have the option — so I will not vote to repeal it," she said.

The contrast with Sen. Dan Sullivan is embarrassing. National Republicans foisted him on us in 2014, switching their support from Mead Treadwell, a real Alaskan, to grab the party nomination against the fatally vulnerable incumbent, Mark Begich.

Sullivan is serving the national Republican Party now, even in its weird dance with Trump, whom no one in Washington respects or trusts, but whom they still hope to use.

Murkowski has kept her distance from that sordid process. Her vote stood for the old tradition of the deliberative Senate that Sen. John McCain recalled in his stirring floor speech Tuesday.

Sullivan is a senator for Fox News viewers. Murkowski is a throw-back to when we grew our own.

I've known Murkowski since our sons were in kindergarten. We worked together on the PTA and sat on the sidelines at soccer games.

When I ran for the Anchorage Assembly in 1993, Murkowski lent her picture for a leaflet. She didn't know much about my politics and began to get cold feet because I was a Democrat, but I told her former Mayor George Sullivan was also on the piece.

When I had asked Sullivan for support, he said, "Sure, I'll support you — you're from a good family. You're not too liberal, are you?"

Actually, I was pretty liberal. But we got on well, because politics in those days hadn't yet become tribal warfare.

Murkowski was first elected to the State House in 1998, toward the end of that kinder era, as a pro-choice female Republican.

During an oil price crash, she joined a bipartisan group to work on a long-term fiscal plan. If it had passed, Alaska's future would be far brighter today.

As a legislator she reminded me of her sister's mother-in-law, Arliss Sturgulewski, a giant in Alaska politics in the early oil years. Among other things, you can thank Sturgulewski for at least a third of the Alaska Permanent Fund, as she passed inflation-proofing.

Sturgulewski came up through local government and the League of Women Voters. She always stood for public process, like Murkowski after her.

In 1990, Sturgulewski won the Republican nomination for governor, but conservatives recruited Walter Hickel to oppose her in the general. Her running mate, Jack Coghill, jumped to Hickel's ticket. (Hickel wasn't a conservative, either, but he was male, and I guess that was good enough.)

Conservatives also tried to flush out Lisa Murkowski early on. She came within 57 votes of losing her political career in a state House primary in 2002. A few months later, her father, Frank, won the governorship and appointed her to his vacant U.S. Senate seat.

It was at once a grotesque act of nepotism and one of the best things he did as governor.

Stevens got Lisa Murkowski re-elected over former Gov. Tony Knowles in 2004 by saying he needed her to keep bringing home the bacon.

She lost a primary to right-winger Joe Miller in 2010. Alaska Natives and moderate voters came to her aid to win a write-in in the general election.

In 2016, she easily won six more years. She seems to be set in office.

Now that she is secure, I hope we continue to see what the real Lisa Murkowski can do.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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