Pioneering woman in politics reflects

Sally Smith's lifetime in politics included legislator, mayor and civil servant
Sally Smith talks about her many careers during an interview at her Douglas home on Monday. Smith most recently managed Sen. Mark Begich's office in Juneau for the last six years.

A star of the stage — both theatrical and political — Sally Smith is trying out retirement, again. At least for now. 

 

Born to a family of statesmen and civil servants in Illinois, Smith decided she would be a Broadway star. She would never get into politics, she argued.

“Back then, if you did musical theater, people would look down their nose at you,” Smith said. “You were supposed to do opera. I was bucking the system.”

In the 1960s she was part of a choral ensemble called the Melody Maids (it was a cool name back then, she said). They wore full-skirted dresses in a rainbow of colors and white gloves.

Though she continued her musical training through college, she would eventually go back on her word and get into politics — but she never stopped bucking the system.

After teaching in Chicago and Los Angeles, spending a summer in Wyoming on a ranch and others in New Jersey and Europe traveling with friends, Smith was certain she’d put down roots in California if she didn’t move on. She pursued her childhood dream of visiting Alaska, planning to stay for just two years. Of course, nobody ever stays just two years; in this regard, Smith was no different.

From the living room of her beach-facing condo on Douglas, Smith began her telling of a decades-long political career as a desk clerk at the Golden Nugget Hotel in Fairbanks, which had Thursday night poker games.

“There was a guy running for governor who would pencil out his speeches on the airplane,” Smith recalled. He enlisted Smith to type up his speeches and check for grammar, promising her a job if he got elected.

She laughed at proposition, but Bill Egan got elected and he kept his word.

She started in the Fairbanks office but then moved to Juneau to work under Egan’s legislative assistant, Alex Miller, who Smith considers her political mentor.

She would go on to work under numerous governors in a variety of roles, none like the one before it.

In her role with Community and Regional Affairs in Fairbanks she partnered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to bring electricity to rural Alaskan villages and saw the first lights turned on in Ruby and Allakaket that weren’t run off the general store’s generator.

For a couple years, Smith says she basically lived out of a single engine plane.

Under another governor, she was a director overseeing the state’s permitting, licensing and dividend applications (when it was all aggregated). Under another, she oversaw Human Resources.

“How interesting that I got called to do things I didn’t know that much about, but people trusted my skills enough to learn it,” Smith mused. “I’m proud of being trusted in that way.”

In between some of these appointed roles, Smith served as an elected official, too.

After her experiences in Bush Alaska, she felt she could represent rural Alaskans’ interests better than others had, so she told her mentor, Miller, that she would run for State House.

“He dropped his cup of coffee,” Smith laughed. “He said, ‘You’re young, female, single and you’ve only been in Alaska for seven years.’ We thought it was impossible.”

After the primary election, Miller predicted she would win.

In 1979 she became the first female representative to be elected out of Fairbanks since statehood. She served three terms when representatives were still elected at-large.

Smith said the oil money had really started rolling in back in 1978, describing politics of the time as being “blood and guts.”

“No” was a word Smith used often, which didn’t make her the most adored of politicians.

While running for a third term she attended a trade mission to China, after which a full-page ad in a newspaper declared her a communist.

She win the election but not by much. It went to a recount.

During her final term, there was a coup, Smith said. Twenty-one members banded together and voted to make big changes — a coalition government and each district would elect one representative, as it is today.

Smith elected not to run again.

“It got acrimonious,” she said. “It took the fun out of it.”

It’s Smith’s opinion that the state as a whole was better served before it was each district for itself.

Though Smith would take time off here and there, she would always eventually get back into politics in some way or another.

After some projects like editing textbooks for computers — back when computers were a pretty new thing, working for the Tundra Times, writing grants and serving as director of Retirement and Benefits, Smith would eventually run for mayor of Juneau in 2000 and win.

“One thing I guess I want to say about being mayor is people will ask you ‘What did you accomplish when you were mayor?’” Smith said. “And I think the answer is, when you’re mayor ... I don’t think you can take credit for anything yourself.”

Smith foists most of the credit onto the city managers who served during her time as mayor, and some on the mayors who preceded and succeeded her.

“Treadwell started under Dennis (Egan) and finished on my watch,” Smith said. “Bruce (Botelho) picked up my projects.”

During her stint as mayor, Smith did oversee the renovation of Juneau-Douglas High School and some forward movement on Thunder Mountain High School, as well as the Marine Park bus area to keep buses from clogging the streets.

She didn’t run for reelection and instead retired for several years. But Smith uses the term “retire” rather loosely. She was still working “odd jobs” like rehabilitating the image of a Fairbanks environmental group, for example, and participating in Juneau’s music and theater scene.

She’s been involved over the years with the Juneau Symphony as a percussionist, with the Juneau Lyric Opera, Perseverance Theatre and more.

She had the thrilling experience of conducting auditions for the musical Hair in New York City and boasted of working with many visionary artists and musicians.

She directs Holiday Pops each December, even having spent the last five years busily running Sen. Mark Begich’s Southeast Alaska office in Juneau. Begich’s opponent in the November election, Dan Sullivan, won the race and will be sworn into office today.

“Again, it was a little different twist,” Smith said. “I did constituent services, things I had always hired other people to do in the past.”

One highlight in that role, she said, was working with interns, mentoring them and seeing them develop. Another was seeing improvements in communities, like adding staff at the Canadian border and working to find a way to save Kake’s historic cannery. On a smaller scale, she enjoyed assisting individuals.

Now, though, Smith is “retired” again. She’ll travel some. She’ll teach a class on how to be a tour guide that she helped develop, to hopefully alleviate the problem of tour guides from Outside spouting off nonsense about Alaska, but then she claims the only thing on her horizon is learning to relax.

Smith said there’s a chance some opportunity will “grab me and shake my teeth lose,” but for now, she’s got a blank slate.

“There are an awful lot of young people who have come along and need to have those same experiences,” she said. “Nobody’s knocking on the door and that’s ok.”

• Melissa Griffiths can be reached at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com or at (907) 523-2272.

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