When Sen. Chris Birch died suddenly in Anchorage on Wednesday night, he left behind a family in mourning, colleagues in shock and half a life devoted to public service. He also left a legacy of legislating in a manner that has fallen out of favor in our divided times, but which we need now more than ever.
Birch was an Alaskan nearly all his life, a man whose biography reads like a how-to on attaining sourdough status. Born in 1950 in Sterling, Illinois, he was the son of a mining engineer. He grew up in mining camps in the Interior, and followed his father into the engineering field, graduating from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1972. His résumé reflected Alaska’s status as a resource and transportation hub, with stints working for mining companies, the state Department of Transportation and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
He entered politics in 1984, winning the first of two terms on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly. In 1991, he moved south, later serving three terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He successfully challenged incumbent Rep. Bob Lynn for a State House seat in 2016, then ran for then-Sen. Kevin Meyer’s open seat in 2018 and won that too.
The magnitude of the loss might best have been displayed by the breadth of those expressing sorrow at Birch’s passing and gratitude for his approach to politics.
“We’ve lost a true Alaskan statesman," House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said in a release.
“I marveled at his capacity to do his work with the utmost courage during very difficult times,” wrote Rep. Chuck Kopp.
He “was a champion for Alaska’s potential and found ways to navigate tough issues and solve problems,” according to BP Alaska President Janet Weiss.
Birch was a “principled man of character, one who treated everyone with dignity and respect,” Senate President Cathy Giessel wrote in a release.
“Senator Birch was always a gentleman who spoke softly, but with great knowledge and authority for the voters" in the districts he represented, wrote Alaska Republican Party Chairman Glenn Clary.
If there was a common thread connecting Birch’s political career, it was a sensibility that hearkens to an earlier era of Alaska politics: a willingness to talk about issues with friend and foe alike, and to put the state’s interests ahead of shorter-term political considerations. Many of those who remembered Birch in the days after his death spoke of instances when they or others had strong disagreements with Birch on issues. To a one, they recalled that he would explain his view earnestly, and listen to theirs with respect. They wouldn’t always walk away seeing eye to eye, but they were at least convinced that Birch had compelling reasons for his position.
Also, Birch was open to changing his own mind in the face of evidence that doing so was in the best interest of his constituents and the state. When he was first elected to the House in 2016, he ran on a platform that included adherence to the original Permanent Fund dividend formula. But this year, after years of cuts and a stubborn deficit caused by low oil revenue, he became a staunch advocate for paying “the PFD the state can afford,” penning an op-ed supporting a $1,200 dividend. It was a move that didn’t make him friends among the no-compromise crowd, but it was also a recognition that providing for the state’s future was more important than keeping his policy views etched in marble. Having staked out a strong position on the state’s most controversial issue, he was willing to engage in a way few of his colleagues did. When full-PFD protesters rallied outside the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, Birch spoke with them, handed out information and explained his position. Not many politicians have been willing to do that in our overheated political climate.
Chris Birch’s willingness to discuss and debate issues with allies and opponents alike is a character trait the Legislature could use more of, now and in the future, as the state faces huge questions about how it will fund its budget and what level of services it should provide. And his willingness to put the interests of his constituents ahead of his own political prospects when considering policy is what Alaskans should remember about him — and an example his colleagues in the Legislature should emulate. Long days in the State Capitol Building and countless public meetings will be less rich without his earnest grin, reliable handshake and plain-spoken wisdom. It shouldn’t take a tragedy like this to remind us that we’re Alaskans first, over and above our particular political party or ideology. We’d do well to remember that as the legacy of a true Alaskan statesman.