How a single mother’s selfless service touched the lives of all Alaskans
Many accomplishments have made Arliss Sturgulewski one of the most important and interesting leaders in Alaskan history, but the one that came to mind when I learned of her death the week last was her ability to admit that she had made a mistake.
Politicians almost never admit error. It gives opponents something to hit you with. It’s poison for politicians driven by the desire for power and prestige – big egos are never wrong.
I learned that Arliss wasn’t like that nearly 30 years ago (I use her first name like an old friend, and because everyone else did). We worked together on a revitalization project in the then gritty and dangerous Mountain View neighborhood.
I was a kid representing the area in the Anchorage Assembly, and Arliss was one of the state’s most well-known leaders, a two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate who nonetheless volunteered to help .
She had nothing to gain by getting involved. It was a dark and thankless job, she didn’t live in the area, and she had already accomplished everything needed for a place in Alaskan history.
Nothing to gain, but we could always count on her. Anything to improve Anchorage and Alaska.
One of the problems with Mountain View, I believed at the time, was that too many large multi-family buildings had been allowed on small lots, with not enough space for parking or children’s play. Arliss listened and, to my amazement, took some of the blame for it.
She said that decades earlier, as a member of the Greater Anchorage Area Planning Commission, during the city’s construction, she supported a plan to allow larger apartment buildings on small lots in Mountain View. . The city suffered from a housing shortage. Now, she admitted, that decision had been a mistake.
There she was, a generation later, trying to fix it.
Neighborhood work is done in small steps during long and tedious meetings. Arliss animated these meetings with her incredible wit and practical common sense, and with radiant warmth, fueled by a deep, soothing voice that projected her playful smile. You just wanted to do what Arliss suggested.
She developed these leadership skills against a life worth of uncompromising 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 for her own education at the University of Washington.
In 1952, she traveled to Alaska with a girlfriend, at the age of 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 getting rich by investing 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 co-chair of the petition campaign to recall Governor 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. Failed attempts at unification dragged on for 10 years before Arliss and a remarkable group of local leaders were elected in 1974 to a commission to draft a municipal charter, hoping that 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 groundwork for the document.
“Arliss believes that if you take notes and write the first draft, you do all the work, you have a much higher likelihood of influencing the outcome,” Angvik recalled. “So Arliss, Shari Holmes, Lisa Parker and me women did this.”
This 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 revenues transformed Alaska. She was an old-school Alaskan Republican: financially prudent, but socially “live and let live.” She was pro-choice and gave her name to equal rights groups.
In 1982, she drafted the legislation that established the management of the Alaska Permanent Fund. Much of the fund’s success is due to this structure, which it developed with Elmer Rasmuson, Alaska’s most successful banker.
Arliss knew how to handle his colleagues, commanding respect in the Senate to pass laws.
His bill is the most important reason for the size of the permanent fund today. Arliss imposed a provision requiring inflation protection of the fund, requiring annual deposits to compensate for inflation. Over time, these repositories have become the biggest source of money to build the corpus we have now.
In 1986, Arliss ran for governor, stepping out of the pack with a cute TV ad in which kids 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 Republicans nominated her again.
In 1986, Steve Cowper won with a wide gender gap in the polls. Journalists wrote about Arliss’ weight and said she looked like a scolding godmother. In 1990, Republicans Wally Hickel and Jack Coghill challenged a third party rather than supporting a female candidate, and won.
When Alaskans finally elected a female governor, they chose a slim, attractive woman with a razor-sharp record and a casual outlook on issues. She was also named Vice President.
Instead, Arliss’ political heiress is 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 public process. (And his sister Carol is married to Arliss’ son, Roe.)
But there was only one Arliss.
She comes from a generation of well-educated middle-class women who left work when they married and became volunteers. This variety of unique devotion to service no longer exists in our society.
It is hard to imagine, today, a person of Arliss’ immense ability, intellect and courage devoting his life to the good of the community and the state with so little personal ambition or of ego.
It’s also hard to imagine Alaska without the contributions it has made.
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