An Advocate for Alaska
Lisa A. Murkowski JD’85 is one of only 16 women in the U.S. Senate, arguably the most powerful lawmaking body in the world. But she is confident that she has earned the right –– what she calls the privilege –– to represent her beloved state.
Born in Ketchikan, Murkowski learned early in life to appreciate Alaska’s abundant resources. “I take pleasure in telling tales to people in the ‘lower 48’ about the midnight sun, the dark winter days and our bird-size mosquitoes — always with a certain amount of embellishment,” she said.
Murkowski completed two years of her undergraduate degree at Willamette University, but switched schools when her father’s work necessitated a move to the East Coast. After earning a degree in economics from Georgetown University, she helped her father, Frank Murkowski, make a successful run for the U.S. Senate. When she returned to Juneau to work as a staffer for an Alaskan legislator, she found a flaw in the system that changed her career path. “Lawmakers were enacting laws, but they had no idea if they were constitutional,” she said. “It made me want to go to law school to learn the law and understand the Constitution.”
Two years later, she entered Willamette University College of Law. “I chose Willamette because I knew the law school had a great reputation,” she said. “It also was close to the water, the mountains and a major city, yet far enough away that I could focus on my studies.”
After earning her law degree, Murkowski returned to Alaska to work for a commercial law firm. She stayed one year and then took a job with the Anchorage District Court, clerking for seven district court judges and working as a temporary magistrate for small claims. “God has a way of making you learn things you may not want to learn,” she said, smiling. “My civil procedure course was the oneI hated most in law school. When I got the job in district court, it was all about civil procedure. All those rules make sense when you put them into application.”
Murkowski then joined the firm of Hoge & Lekisch, where she worked for the next eight years. In 1998, she began yearning for a new challenge. “I left the firm in January; by May, I was running for the Statehouse,” she said. “I’d always been involved in the community — politics at different levels — but I really didn’t think about running for elected office. A state representative decided to retire and there was an opening. I knew it was one of those opportunities that if I didn’t try, I’d always regret it. As they say, the rest is history.”
Murkowski has been making history ever since. She successfully ran for the Alaska Legislature three times, earning a reputation as a thoughtful policymaker and a natural leader. Elected as a Republican, she proved her willingness to work both sides of the aisle to make things happen. Faced with a growing state deficit, she grappled with answers to the state’s chronic imbalance between revenues and expenses. Just months before her 2002 re-election campaign, she joined House Democrats and other Republicans to propose an income tax to close the projected billion-dollar fiscal gap.
Murkowski’s bold move earned her both enemies and supporters. Some said she was too conservative. Opponents charged that she wasn’t conservative enough. They claimed she was soft on gun rights, favored raising taxes and was on the wrong side of the abortion issue. Her critics almost triumphed. Murkowski won her third-term re-election to the U.S. House by 57 votes.
Murkowski’s colleagues named her House majority leader for the 2003–04 session. Around this same time, her father resigned the U.S. Senate seat he had held for 22 years to run for governor of Alaska. When he won, he appointed his daughter to serve out his term in the Senate, an appointment allowed by Alaska state law. It was a decision that angered many voters.
“It was unprecedented,” Murkowski said of her appointment. “It’s the elephant under the carpet that people don’t want to talk about until you’re out of the room. I do want to talk about it. Not for one day, not for one minute since coming to the Senate have I let concerns about the process interfere with my duty to represent all Alaskans.” In November 2004, she won the general election for the same Senate seat.
Since taking office in December 2002, Murkowski has worked hard to learn the ropes. “There’s no rule book for the Senate,” she noted. “It’s a fascinating institution built on precedent. You have to understand the process and the procedure and the history. Nothing can prepare you for it. You just have to listen and watch and learn.”
Murkowski’s mantra is doing what’s best for Alaska. It’s not an easy task in the polarized and politicized climate of Washington, D.C. “Washington is driven by politics and labels,” she explained. “With polarization between the parties, the merits of legislation become secondary. There’s huge pressure to engage in the divisiveness because you’re not supposed to give the other side an edge.”
It is a game Murkowski refuses to play. She co-sponsored a bill with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, to roll back surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act. Supporters of the bill characterize it as “modest checks and balances” and a “much-needed mid-course correction” of hastily passed legislation that infringes on constitutional liberties and privacy. The move led Bill Barr of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s 21st Century Privacy and Freedom Center to say, “Senator Murkowski is leading the charge to create sound public policy that will assist law enforcement and simultaneously preserve the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding Americans.”
Undoubtedly, not everyone will agree. But Murkowski will continue to act on what she believes in. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to answer to yourself,” she said. “If you do something for the sake of politics and shove policy aside, you have to question what you’re doing. You’ve got to stay true to your values and your principles and do what you believe is right.”
Lisa A. Murkowski JD’85
“I chose Willamette because I knew the law school had a great reputation. It also was close to the water, the mountains and a major city, yet far enough away that I could focus on my studies.”