Longtime legislator Foster dies at age 63

Nome representative served 11 terms in the Alaska Legislature

Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Longtime Alaska Rep. Richard Foster was remembered Wednesday as a strong advocate for rural Alaska who fought to improve the lives of those he represented.

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The Associated Press
The Associated Press

The Alaska House speaker's office said Foster died Tuesday. He was 63.

Foster suffered from a genetic kidney disease and died of a heart attack while undergoing dialysis in Washington state. He was well-liked in the Capitol, where a half-dozen people he worked with offered him their kidneys when he became ill.

"He was kindhearted, had an infectious laugh and a grand sense of humor. Richard treated people with respect and was a smart, humble, unassuming legislator. He served Alaska well, and we will miss him," Gov. Sean Parnell said Wednesday.

Foster, a Democrat, served 11 terms in the Legislature, beginning in 1988. He represented Nome and 28 small native villages.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who served with Foster in the state House, said his death is a real loss for the people of Nome and rural Alaska, as well as the state.

"Richard loved Alaska history and, in his spare time, he would pore through the archives, reading old newspaper accounts about life in Alaska," Murkowski said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said Foster was committed to improving the lives of the people he served.

"Alaska has lost a true public servant," he said.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said Foster "had a passion for public service."

A committee of at least five Democrats from District 39 will meet Oct. 28 to go over applications for Foster's replacement, said Alaska Democratic Party chairwoman Patti Higgins. People interested in the job also can apply on the Web. The committee will select three names to be forwarded to the governor.

"I think there is going to be a lot of interest," Higgins said.

Before Foster got into politics, he owned Foster Aviation, a business started by his father, former state Sen. Neal "Willy" Foster, one of the original Bush pilots.

When people were down on their luck and needed a ride, Foster would fly them and wouldn't charge, said Nancy McGuire, publisher of The Nome Nugget newspaper.

"He did a lot of things for people. When people didn't have money, he took them home," she said. "That is the thing about him. He was a people person."

In 1991, Foster, a Vietnam War veteran and former Army captain, faced federal gun charges after six unregistered machine guns and a 50 mm Soviet mortar were found in his possession. His constituents threw a fundraiser to help pay for his defense, and a sympathetic Nome jury acquitted him.

"That was really actually funny. Nobody in Nome would have convicted Richard for something like that," McGuire said.

Foster rarely joined any legislative debates on the House floor, preferring to look at gun magazines while seated in the back of the room. One of his nicknames in the Legislature was "Machine Gun Foster."

He focused his attention instead on the capital budget and ways to bring jobs, infrastructure and services to Nome and the villages he represented.

He kept his Democratic Party affiliation but usually voted with the Republican caucus.

Robert Keith, board chairman of Kawerak Inc., a nonprofit Native organization in Nome created to improve services throughout the region, said Foster was able to get on the finance committee as a Democrat when there was a lot of tension between Republicans and Democrats in Juneau.

"He was a person who could reach across party lines and work the issues in our best interests," Keith said.

Ramon Gandia, who has lived in Nome for 45 years, said he worked for Foster for a few years as a pilot in the 1980s and got to know him then.

"He did an excellent job, not just for Nome but the area. He was very contentious, a totally honest man," Gandia said. "He had a heck of a sense of humor."

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