Trailblazing Alaska politician Arliss Sturgulewski died on April 7 at the age of 94.
Sturgulewski got into politics in 1970s Anchorage, as she was raising a son after her husband died in a plane crash.
Sturgulewski went on to serve in the state Senate and, as a Republican, was the first woman to win a major political party’s gubernatorial primary election and run for governor.
Her longtime friend and fellow community organizer, Jane Angvik, says Sturgulewski paved the way for other women politicians, but it was her interest in improving all Alaskans’ lives that really drove her.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jane Angvik: She actually saw the influence that government has on people’s lives and wanted to make sure that the government public policy was actually to the benefit of the citizens. She believed that if you were involved, if you evaluated the issues, you could make good decisions. And even if you weren’t the head of a company, you could have the information and the ability to influence the direction of public policy.
Casey Grove: I wanted to ask you to describe her political career and kind of what happened.
JA: Okay, what she did is she worked in local government, and then she was elected to the Alaska State Senate in 1978 and served in the Senate for 10 years. And in that time, the state of Alaska exploded in population, went from being almost broke to exploded in money as a result of the completion of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the beginnings of oil wealth that accrued to the state of Alaska. It went from a tiny budget to a several-hundred-million-dollar budget in one year. And then the next year, it was a billion dollar budget. So that’s where Arliss Sturgulewski shone. She was a bright voice for the public interest versus the private interest. And she was very strong and very capable of making sure that the public interest was going to be served by the appropriations made for capital improvements, by the appropriations made for community grants — that what we were going to be doing is making sure that they could be using those funds for the public interest.
She ran for governor in 1986 and in 1990. That was very unusual in Alaska. It was very unusual in America. And so at that time, they (thought), “Could a woman actually be the governor of Alaska?” And she was perpetually prepared to answer the question: “This woman is able to be the governor of Alaska. And this is why, and this is how.” But she continued her work on behalf of the community in a variety of ways. And so what I really want you to understand is, she had 60, 70 years of service to Alaska that never stopped. She was fully active her whole life.
CG: In general, what do you think is her lasting legacy on Alaska politics?
JA: Arliss was an advocate of the people and of good government. What did she accomplish? She created an ethos, an ethic of community service as the principle for people to be able to do public service. She also absolutely broke trail for every woman who has ever followed her in seeking office in any way, from school board to governor. And she broke trail for all women who wanted to be able to stand on their own two feet and make sure that they had equal opportunities under the law.
CG: Just as a friend, what was she like?
JA: She was a lot of fun. She was a lot of fun. It was joyful to have dinner with Arliss, at her home or our home. She had a wry sense of humor, and it was joyful to hear. She was devoted to her family and her grandsons as well as her son and daughter-in-law. And she was very engaged in a broad range of things. I mean, she supported the Girl Scouts, she supported the Boy Scouts, she supported… (everybody). So what I’d say about her is that she was fun, and she was joyful, and she was kind and she was smart. Oh, so smart. And she inspired generations of people to be willing to stand up and take a stand.