Many accomplishments made Arliss Sturgulewski one of the most important and interesting leaders in Alaskan history, but learning of her death last week made me think of her ability to admit mistakes.
Politicians almost never admit mistakes. This gives opponents something to hit you with. It’s poison for politicians motivated by power and prestige – big egos are never wrong.
I learned that almost 30 years ago Arliss wasn’t like that (I use her first name as an old friend, and because everyone did). We worked together on a project to revitalize what was then a grim and dangerous Mountain View neighborhood.
I was a kid representing the area in the Anchorage Convention, and Arliss was one of the state’s best-known leaders, a two-time Republican candidate for governor who nonetheless volunteered to support.
She could gain nothing by interfering. This was obscure, thankless work, she didn’t live in the area, and she had already done all that was required for a place in Alaskan history.
Nothing to gain, but you could always count on them. Anything to make Anchorage and Alaska better.
One of Mountain View’s problems, I believed at the time, was that too many large apartment buildings had been approved on small lots without enough space for parking or for children to play. Arliss listened and, to my amazement, took some of the blame for it.
She said that decades earlier, as an early member of the Greater Anchorage Area Planning Commission when the city was being built, she supported a plan to allow larger apartment buildings on small lots in Mountain View. The city had a housing shortage. Now she realized that this 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 these meetings with her amazing wit and practical sense and radiant warmth, fueled by a deep, soothing voice that projected her playful smile. They just wanted to do what Arliss suggested.
She developed these leadership qualities against a lifelong unrelenting 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 support her way through the University of Washington herself.
In 1952, at the age of 24, she went to Alaska with a friend. She soon married, but her husband died in a plane crash, leaving her with a teenage son. After that she managed everything on her own, among other things she became rich as a bank and real estate investor.
In 1958 Arliss began her civil service career with the League of Women Voters. She never stopped. Sixty-one years later, she co-chaired the petition to have Governor Mike Dunleavy removed.
She was a charter mother of the Anchorage Ward.
Anchorage’s existence as a modern city began with the amalgamation of several local governments into what is today the borough. Unsuccessful attempts at unification had dragged on for 10 years before Arliss and a notable group of local leaders were elected to a commission in 1974 to write a municipal charter in the hope that voters would endorse it.
Jane Angvik, who was only 26 at the time, recalled how a few years ago Arliss brought together four women on the commission to lay the groundwork for the document.
“Arliss believes that if you take the notes and write the first draft, you do all the work, you have a much higher chance of influencing the outcome,” Angvik recalled. “So Arliss, Shari Holmes, Lisa Parker and I, the women, did that.”
This document became the city’s constitution, adopted by voters in 1975.
Arliss served on the State Senate from 1978 to 1993, the years when oil revenue transformed Alaska. She was an old-style Alaskan Republican: fiscally prudent but socially live and let live. She was pro-choice and contributed her name to equality groups.
In 1982 she drafted the act establishing the Alaska Permanent Fund. Much of the fund’s success is due to this structure, which she developed with Elmer Rasmuson, Alaska’s most successful banker.
Arliss knew how to lead her peers and earned respect in the Senate to pass legislation.
Your bill is the number one reason for the size of the permanent fund today. Arliss enforced a provision requiring the fund to be inflation-proof and requiring annual payments to offset inflation. Over time, these deposits have become the largest source of funds to build the corpus that we have now.
In 1986, Arliss ran for governor and broke out of the pack with a cute TV ad in which kids had trouble pronouncing “Sturgulewski” before giving up and saying, “Let’s just call her governor.”
Sexism crippled her in that race, just as it did in 1990, when the Republicans re-nominated her.
In 1986, Steve Cowper won the polls with a large gender gap. Journalists wrote about Arliss’ weight and said she looked like a scolding schoolteacher. In 1990, Republicans Wally Hickel and Jack Coghill presented a third-party challenge rather than endorse a female candidate and won.
When Alaskans finally elected a governor, they chose a thin, attractive woman with a razor-thin record and a smooth approach to issues. She was also nominated for Vice President.
Arliss’ political heir is instead Senator Lisa Murkowski, also a pro-choice Republican. Love her 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 Roe, son of Arliss.)
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 went into volunteer work. This diversity of single-minded devotion to service no longer exists in our society.
It is hard to imagine today that a person of the immense skill, intellect and courage of Arliss could devote his life to the good of the community and state with so little personal ambition or ego.
It’s also hard to imagine Alaska without the contributions it has made.
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