Friends rally to aid Nome representative

Lawmaker who once faced federal weapons charges has kidney disease

Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2007

In 1991, the state representative from Nome was facing trial on federal gun charges. Six unregistered machines guns and a 50mm Soviet mortar were among the items found in Richard Foster's possession.

In many other places, such troubles could be grounds for a recall. Instead, Foster's constituents threw a fundraiser to help pay for his defense.

Now in the face of a more serious challenge - he has a life-threatening kidney disease and needs a transplant - friends once again are rallying to Foster's side.

Half a dozen people at the Alaska Capitol have offered him one of their kidneys, and more than 200 legislators, staff, lobbyists and well-wishers turned out in Juneau last month to raise money to help cover out-of-pocket expenses for him and his wife, Catherine.

"I was real touched and humbled by it, especially by the donors who came out of the woodwork to help," said Foster, the father of eight adult children and one teen. "You have all these people in the building here and they are at each others throats sometimes but when someone needs help they are the first to step forward."

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A silver-haired, easygoing Democrat with a ready somewhat manic laugh, Foster has a knack for making friends. At the fundraiser, the stories flowed thick and fast about his corny jokes and biting sense of humor.

Lobbyist Paul Fuhs, a former Nome city manager, drew the biggest laugh with his story of walking with the legislator in his hometown on the edge of the Bering Sea. When a seagull swooped past, dropping a deposit on Foster's head, Fuhs figured Foster would want to tidy up, so he asked if he should fetch some toilet paper.

"Nah, he'll be long gone by then," Foster quipped.

On the House Floor, Foster rarely joins in legislative debate and is often observed leafing through a gun magazine. He is better known for his birthday roasts to colleagues, and for "Fridays at Foster's," the end of the week music jam he hosts in his comfortable offices decorated with photographs of the thousands of people who've visited over the years.

Foster said most legislative bills aren't relevant, anyhow, to residents of his far-flung, often icebound northwestern district. He represents the city of Nome, population 3,540, and 28 small Native villages - of which only two are connected to each other by road and none to the greater world.

"There are a 1,000 bills introduced here every two years and they don't mean a thing to people in Savoonga or Diomede," Foster said. "Like seat belt laws. Most of my villagers don't even have a car. They all use ATVs (all terrain vehicles) or snowmachines."

As a lawmaker, his single-minded focus is on the capital budget and its ability to build jobs and infrastructure in remote, cash-poor villages. In homes there, the toilet is often a bucket behind a curtain in a corner off a main room.

"The question is trying to get good safe conditions, water and sewer mostly, and affordable power," said Foster, whose ancestry is part Scandinavian, part Eskimo. "When I came (to the Legislature) in 1988 they had just found out in Shishmaref that their drinking water pond was built on an old Eskimo cemetery. They were drinking human remains."

His constituents certainly recognize the importance of seniority and Foster's success in bringing projects home.

In recent years, those have included schools in White Mountain, Sheldon Point, Hooper Bay, Chevak and Stebbins, the repaving of several airport runways, and smaller community projects like washeterias and dust and erosion control.

The senior member of the House of Representatives, Foster is now in his 10th two-year term. He has also remained a member of the House majority during his long tenure despite a shift in power 14 years ago from Democrats to Republicans.

He kept his party affiliation but joined the Republican caucus with three fellow rural Democrats. The move angered those who were left in the minority, but former lawmaker and Anchorage Democrat Ethan Berkowitz said he came to appreciate the pressures that the state's handful of rural lawmakers work under.

"If I don't get a capital project, no big deal. We'll get it later on," Berkowitz said. "If he doesn't get a school, that means his family, his friends, aren't going to get the education they deserve. That's a very heavy burden."

Berkowitz took an annual birthday ribbing from Foster for a boating mishap near Juneau early in his own decade-long tenure.

"He doesn't take a bath. He just washes ashore," was one of Foster's lines.

But it was Foster's zeal for collecting weaponry that landed him in trouble 16 years ago. A Vietnam veteran and former Army captain, Foster grabbed the attention of federal agents when he asked a Juneau machinist to craft some submachine gun parts.

But a sympathetic Nome jury acquitted Foster to the applause of the gallery.

Former Nome mayor Leo Rasmussen is not surprised that people in the capital are now rallying to his support.

"Richard is just good old Alaskan in the true sense," Rasmussen said. "The old Alaskan doesn't fit the mold of today. They have a genuineness to them that by and large the country has lost."

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