Surge in women lawmakers puts Alaska ahead of national curve
As Alaska marks International Women's Day, more than a third of its state lawmakers are women after voters sent more than half a dozen to the state Capitol in last year's election alone.
State Sen. Mia Costello got a surprise earlier this week. With more than 50 days elapsed in the current legislative session, the Anchorage Republican learned she is the first woman to serve as the Senate majority leader since statehood.
What she already knew was that she’s among a record 23 women serving in the state Legislature: six in the Senate and 17 in the House. The group posed for photos last month, when U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski visited for her annual address to the Legislature.
“I do have to say when the Senate organized, we weren’t talking about women in leadership,” Costello said. “We just ended up being supported by our members and we happened to be women. I think it says a lot about our caucus willing to support women in leadership for the first time.”
It’s also the first time the Senate has seen women simultaneously hold positions as majority leader, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee and Senate president. Those seats are filled by Costello's fellow Anchorage Republicans, Sens. Natasha von Imhof and Cathy Giessel.
Giessel is the fourth woman, all of them GOP members, to hold the gavel. Jan Faiks became the first woman to preside over either chamber in 1987; she was followed by Drue Pearce, in 1995 and 1999, and Lyda Green in 2007.
“I have some big shoes to fill,” Giessel said. “They really cut the way, they really cut the path, and I stand on the shoulders of some very competent women who have led the Senate.”
The Legislature features seven newly elected or appointed women, representing half of this session's freshman lawmakers. It makes for a net gain of four more women since last year; three either retired or did not win a bid for re-election.
The youngest is 29-year-old Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, who brought her family of four to Juneau for the session.
“Women are great multitaskers for one, but there are all sorts of women who have children and go back into the workforce,” she said. “I’m a mom and I’m also working. I think it’s really important that our voice, especially younger working moms are represented in Juneau.”
While Rasumussen is new to public service, another newly elected lawmaker Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage brings nine years' experience with the Anchorage Assembly. Gray-Jackson also worked for the Assembly for 18 years, spanning 42 Assembly members and five Anchorage mayors.
She won handily to succeed Berta Gardner, who retired last year.
“Public service is my business,” Gray-Jackson said. “I think it’s pretty exciting to see other human beings that look like me, also known as females. I think it’s no longer solely a man’s world. Not any more.
“I think Alaska is following along. More people are realizing how important it is to vote, in particular women are recognizing how important it is to vote. When women vote, women win.”
With 38.3 percent of the legislative seats held by women, Alaska is nearly 10 percentage points above the national average of 28.7 percent, according to research by the National Conference on State Governments. Six states have a higher percentage of women holding state office: Nevada (50.8 percent), Colorado (47 percent), Oregon (41.1 percent), Washington (40.1 percent), Vermont (39.4 percent) and Arizona (38.9 percent). Maryland and Alaska are tied.
Alaska’s previous record of 19 women in the Legislature, in 2018, stood for just one year after Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky was sworn in to replace Zach Fansler.
“For a long time women have been mothers and providers and nurturers and consensus builders, just the way they are in the world,” Zulkosky said. “So to see women bring that into a space of decision-making, is something I think is really inspiring.”
Zulkosky’s arrival brought some closure to Fansler’s resignation, amid allegations that he struck a woman in a hotel room in January 2018. Last summer, Fansler pleaded guilty to second-degree harassment in connection with the incident.
Fansler’s troubles closely followed the resignation of Rep. Dean Westlake, who faced allegations of sexual harassment.
What followed in April last year was the adoption of a sexual harassment policy for the Legislature, a six-page document that featured a more detailed definition of harassment, replacing the one-page policy. It also included details on reporting harassment, allowing for independent investigations into allegations against lawmakers.
“I think especially in light of some of the sexual harassment problems we’ve had in the Legislature, there were times over the last two years, that made it clear to me that we needed more women to be part of the conversation,” said Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage. “That’s been a problem in the Legislature for a long time, when we had people making decisions that affected women without women being part of the conversation. What changes when you get past that 30 percent threshold, all of the sudden that group isn’t marginalized any more, they aren’t tokenized any more. They become part of the norm.”
Alaska is in the throes of budget difficulties, sorting through a $1.6 billion deficit.
The House and Senate Finance Committees each have women serving as co-chair: von Imhof with the Senate and Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, in the House.
Von Imhof succeeds former Sen. Anna MacKinnon as a co-chair, but Wilson is the first woman to hold a co-chair seat in the House Finance Committee since Eileen MacLean did so in 1994, alongside Ronald Larson.
Wilson is among the most senior women in office, having served slightly more than nine years. She says she tries to help the freshmen keep from becoming overwhelmed.
“As much as we make policy, I want to make sure whether they are voting up or down on a bill, they have as much information as they need to be able to go back home and explain what their vote is,” Wilson said. “As long as you know why you voted the way you did, your constituents may not agree with you, but they have to be able to understand how you arrived at the decisions that you did."
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