By WIN GRUENING
“The single most important ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.” Theodore Roosevelt
One of the toughest jobs in the world is being a state legislator. Sure, elected office at the national level is no easy job. But, at that level, there is a tendency to be somewhat insulated and rely more on advisors and administrative aides. In Alaska, you are eyeball to eyeball with constituents frequently and must depend more on your instincts and communication skills to do your job.
No one demonstrated that more and represented his community better in recent history than Juneau’s former state senator, Dennis Egan.
Egan’s recent passing after retiring in 2019 brought to the forefront just how important that is in a time of increasing political polarity and lack of compromise.
Egan took to the job naturally, not just because politics ran in his family, but because of his personality and his innate affinity for helping others.
Dennis and I knew each other from a very young age as our families were equally involved in state politics. Even though he was a year ahead of me in high school, often we did things together – either visiting him at the Governor’s Mansion when his father was governor or at my grandparent’s cabin at Amalga Harbor.
Egan was always the life of the party and while we were often one step away from trouble we managed to avoid it. But he was serious too.
Egan got his start in communicating with an audience in high school when he began working at the local radio station – cementing a life-long connection with the industry later as a station owner and radio personality. But it also was where Egan honed the people skills that got him elected to the borough assembly and later as Juneau’s mayor.
When Gov. Palin was looking to appoint someone to fill Juneau’s vacant state senate seat in 2009, she eventually turned to Egan – someone that would be accepted by party leaders from both sides of the aisle.
Elected officials, particularly local mayors and legislators, are the face of their communities and can define how they wish to be regarded. At Dennis’s retirement four years ago, Egan’s colleagues spoke of his affability, his sense of humor and his devotion to Alaska and Juneau.
Egan possessed a fundamental respect for the institutions to which he was elected. He was courteous to all members, regardless of their political affiliation and he was honorable.
But the most important aspect of Egan Egan’s brand of politics was the way he used his influence.
Elected office carries a certain amount of power – whether it’s the ability to pick up the phone and get a department head to deal with a constituent issue or corral less senior members to vote with you on an issue.
Some politicians use their power to curry favor – or intimidate – to get their way. Some politicians manipulate others to advance their agenda.
Egan never played those games. He held his positions strongly and explained them plainly. He was genuinely authentic and spoke to his colleagues and constituents as individuals.
He used the power of his position to help Juneau and its surrounding communities. He made it difficult for any legislator to think for a moment that moving the capital was a good idea. He wasn’t afraid to buck his own party when it meant helping his district. His unwavering support of building the Lynn Canal Highway is proof of that.
He helped appropriate the money that funded the new State Library, Archives and Museum. He fought for and secured needed Capitol renovations improving Juneau’s capital facilities.
Of course, none of that would have been possible if Egan hadn’t realized the value of relationships and true bi-partisanship – a quality in short supply these days.
Current and future legislators would be smart to emulate Egan’s tenure in office.
Alaska’s future depends on it.
After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.