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What's in a name? In the Legislature, ask Ortiz, Wielechowski and Kreiss-Tomkins

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 30, 2015

JUNEAU -- As chair of the resources committee in the Alaska Senate, Anchorage Republican Sen. Cathy Giessel has confidently steered members through such complicated topics as oil tax policy, gas pipeline construction and project permitting.

One subject that briefly put her out of her depth, however, was the name of the lone Democrat on her committee, Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski. Is it WILL-uh-COW-ski? Or WHILE-uh-COW-ski?

"I'm not actually sure which is the correct pronunciation," Giessel said in an interview just before the start of a hearing Monday. "How about we ask him?"

Ten weeks into its 13-week session, most lawmakers have settled into routines at the Alaska Legislature. There are floor sessions Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with committee hearings filling the gaps in between.

But some legislators are still trying to master the names of their colleagues, from Millett to Wielechowski to Vazquez. That's MILL-it, WILL-uh-COW-ski, and VAZZ-kezz to you -- not Mill-ETTE, WHILE-uh-COW-ski, or VAZZ-kwez, as they've been publicly mangled.

While the two Anchorage legislators are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the surnames of Wielechowski and Republican Rep. Charisse Millett have for years similarly stymied legislators and staffers in the halls of the Capitol building.

And this session's freshman class of lawmakers presents new challenges, with some legislators bedeviled by the Hispanic heritage of Rep. Liz Vazquez, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan.

Ortiz, in fact, uses the unconventional pronunciation of "Ore-TEZZ" on his voicemail -- a linguistic quirk that he said dates back to the early 1920s, when his grandfather Benito Ortiz moved to Illinois from Mexico and was hired by a railroad.

"The person who took the application wrote down the name Ortez," Ortiz said. "From that point on in Ottawa, Illinois, that's who we were."

With his election late last year, Ortiz joins a long line of lawmakers whose names have tongue-tied committee chairs, Senate presidents and House speakers. Other members still serving include Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, who said he could "write a coffee table book on the different pronunciations" of his name.

For campaigns, Micciche said his wife makes a rebus to help people pronounce his name -- essentially an illustrated guide with pictures of a chick and a key. His advice to freshmen like Ortiz and Vazquez?

"Rejoice in the fact that you don't have a name like Smith," Micciche said. Sometimes a unique name, he added, can spark a conversation "where you can talk about an important issue."

That was the case for former Gov. Steve Cowper, who said he ran radio ads with friends arguing about his last name -- pronounced "Cooper" -- to build support for his first campaign for the Legislature, decades ago.

"Anything that draws attention to you, particularly in a primary when nobody knows who you are, is a plus," Cowper said by phone from Texas. "You don't have to put a lot of content in there -- you just want to know that there's some guy named either Coop-er or Cow-per running for office."

Cowper, who wore a mustache and cowboy boots, ultimately became known as the "High Plains Drifter" when he served as governor from 1986 to 1990. But he said confusion over his last name has been a "lifetime deal," though even as governor it didn't bother him.

"They called me worse things than my last name, I'll tell you that," he said.

Generally, though, lawmakers in prominent positions are more likely to be addressed correctly, said Robin Shoaps, an assistant professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks who studies language and political discourse.

She pointed to U.S. Rep. John Boehner, speaker of the U.S. House, whose name is pronounced "BAY-ner."

"No one says 'Boner' unless they're trying to make fun of him," she said. "The more powerful someone is, the more people are going to try to get their name right."

That experience appears to be borne out by House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who insisted that his last name -- Chen-ALT -- is not difficult to pronounce. He acknowledged being challenged by some of his colleagues', however -- particularly the last three hyphenated syllables belonging to Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka.

"Initially, I just called him Rep. Tomkins," Chenault said.

Kreiss-Tomkins says people frequently substitute the first half of his last name with one that refers to Christianity's central figure. Some people, like Sen. Johnny Ellis, "choose to embrace it and call me Jesus Christ-Tomkins," Kreiss-Tomkins said in a prepared statement.

"It's a rush to alternate between mild mannered state legislator to religious messiah at least a couple times a week," he said. "Unfortunately, the new name has yet to lead to divine intervention with our budget deficit."

In fact, Kreiss-Tomkins isn't even the only legislator in the minority Democratic caucus whose name has been complicated by a key person in the development of Christianity.

There's also Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, who was quick to correct a mispronunciation in a committee hearing earlier in the legislative session. He wasn't available for comment Monday, but an aide emailed a statement to clear up any confusion.

"Gutenberg printed a Bible using movable type," the statement said. "Guttenberg is a legislator from Fairbanks."

Slip-ups in the Legislature happen on a daily basis. On Monday, Millett, the Republican majority leader, said she got a note from one of her closest friends in the House, Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla. The note appended an "e" to Millett's last name -- making it identical to the last name of Russ Millette, a fringe candidate in the 2014 gubernatorial Republican Party primary.

Millett said her name also gets mixed up with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott's.

"I've been mistaken for everybody's sister, aunt, cousin, niece," she said.

Gattis said she "knew better" than to misspell Millett. But Gattis -- rhymes with CAT-iss -- said others struggle with her own name, especially Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, who pronounces it "Goddess."

"The first two years, I didn't correct them," Gattis said. "Now, I just ask them to bow."

Other legislators have been perplexed by the unconventional pronunciation of Ortiz, the Ketchikan representative.

In fact, he said, he's started using the traditional Spanish version more often, especially with unfamiliar audiences -- in part because of the popularity of the Boston Red Sox baseball star David Ortiz, whose nickname is "Big Papi."

"When they read about Big Papa from the Red Sox, that's how they pronounce it," Ortiz said, scrambling the nickname slightly.

He now professes not to have a preference, to the consternation of some of his colleagues.

"Everybody wants to know," Ortiz said. "And I think they get a little frustrated when I say either one."

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