Many achievements made Arliss Sturgulewski among the most important and interesting leaders in Alaska history, but the one that popped into my mind when I learned of her death last week was her ability to admit when she had made a mistake.
Politicians almost never admit error. Doing so gives opponents something to hit you with. That’s poison for politicians motivated by the desire for power and prestige — big egos are never wrong.
I learned that Arliss wasn’t that way nearly 30 years ago (I use her first name as an old friend, and because everyone did). We worked together on a project to revitalize the Mountain View neighborhood, which was then gritty and dangerous.
I was a kid representing the area on the Anchorage Assembly, and Arliss was one of the state’s best-known leaders, a two-time Republican nominee for governor, who nevertheless volunteered to assist.
There was nothing for her to gain by being involved. This was obscure, thankless work, she didn’t live in the area, and she had already accomplished everything needed for a place in Alaska history.
Nothing to gain, but you could always count on her. Anything to make Anchorage and Alaska better.
One of Mountain View’s problems, I believed at that time, was that too many large, multi-family buildings had been allowed on small lots, without enough space for parking or children’s play. Arliss listened and, to my astonishment, took some of the blame for that.
She said that decades before, as an early member of the Greater Anchorage Area Planning Commission, when the city was being built, she had supported a plan to allow larger apartment buildings on small lots in Mountain View. The city had a housing shortage. Now, she recognized, that decision had been a mistake.
Here she was, a generation later, trying to fix it.
Neighborhood work happens in small increments during long, tedious meetings. Arliss enlivened those meetings with her amazing mind and practical good sense, and with radiant warmth, powered by a deep, soothing voice that projected her playful smile. You simply wanted to do whatever Arliss suggested.
She developed those leadership skills against a lifetime worth of intransigent sexism.
Arliss grew up in rural Washington during the Great Depression. Her mother died young and her father didn’t believe girls should go to college. Arliss disagreed. She worked various jobs to pay her own way through the University of Washington.
In 1952, she drove to Alaska with a girlfriend, at age 24. She soon married, but her husband died in a plane crash, leaving her with a pre-teen son. After that, she accomplished everything on her own, including becoming wealthy as an investor in banks and real estate.
In 1958, Arliss began her career in public service, with the League of Women Voters. She never stopped. Sixty-one years later, she was a co-chair of the petition drive to recall Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
She was a founding mother of the Municipality of Anchorage.
Anchorage’s existence as a modern city began with the unification of several local governments into the municipality that exists today. Unsuccessful attempts to unify had dragged on 10 years before Arliss and a remarkable group of local leaders were elected in 1974 to a commission to write a municipal charter, with hopes voters would approve it.
Jane Angvik, who was only 26 at the time, recalled several years ago how Arliss brought together four women on the commission to lay the basis for the document.
“Arliss believes if you take the notes and write the first draft, you do all the work, you have a much higher probability of influencing the outcome,” Angvik recalled. “So Arliss, Shari Holmes, Lisa Parker and I, the women, did that.”
That document became the city’s constitution, approved by voters in 1975.
Arliss served in the State Senate from 1978 to 1993, the years when oil revenue transformed Alaska. She was an old-style Alaska Republican: fiscally prudent, but socially live-and-let-live. She was pro-choice and contributed her name to equal rights groups.
In 1982, she authored the legislation that set up management of the Alaska Permanent Fund. Much of the fund’s success is due to that structure, which she developed with Elmer Rasmuson, Alaska’s most successful banker.
Arliss knew how to manage her colleagues, commanding the respect on the Senate floor to pass legislation.
Her bill is the most important reason for the permanent fund’s size today. Arliss forced through a provision requiring inflation-proofing of the fund, requiring annual deposits to offset inflation. Over time, those deposits became the largest source of money building the corpus we have now.
In 1986, Arliss ran for governor, breaking out of the pack with a cute TV ad in which children struggled to pronounce “Sturgulewski” before giving up and saying, “Let’s just call her governor.”
Sexism crippled her in that race, as well as in 1990, when the Republicans nominated her again.
In 1986, Steve Cowper won with a large gender gap in the polls. Journalists wrote about Arliss’s weight and said she looked like a scolding schoolmarm. In 1990, Republicans Wally Hickel and Jack Coghill mounted a third-party challenge rather than support a female candidate, and won.
When Alaskans finally elected a female governor, they picked a thin, attractive woman with a paper-thin record and a glib take on the issues. She was also nominated for vice-president.
Arliss’s political heir, instead, is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, also a pro-choice Republican. Love or hate her, you know she does her homework and cares about good government and the public process. (And her sister Carol is married to Arliss’s son, Roe.)
But there was only one Arliss.
She came from a generation of well-educated, middle-class women who left the workplace when they married and became volunteers. That variety of single-minded devotion to service no longer exists in our society.
It’s hard to imagine, today, a person of Arliss’s immense ability, intellect and courage devoting her life to the good of the community and the state with so little personal ambition or ego.
It’s also hard to imagine Alaska without the contributions she made.
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