Former House speaker dies at 65

Ramona Barnes known as a tough politician, formidable opponent

Posted: Friday, November 28, 2003

Ramona Barnes - a tough-talking, gritty Republican from Anchorage who rose to be the first woman speaker of the House, died Wednesday. She was 65.

Barnes served 20 years in the Legislature, first elected in 1978, and gained a reputation for taking care of her friends and punishing her enemies.

She died at Providence Alaska Medical Center after being hospitalized on Monday. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.

The family referred calls to Barnes' lawyer, Bill Cook, who said she had been hospitalized several times in the last year and had suffered repeated bouts of pneumonia and kidney problems.

"She had been very ill for quite some time," Cook said.

Barnes came to Alaska as a military wife and was elected to the state House after serving on the Elmendorf Air Force Base school board.

Once in the Legislature, Barnes found a passion for managing the egos and ideology of politicians to craft end-of-session deals.

"Basically the Legislature was her life," said Eleanor Wolfe, who served as a legislative aid to Barnes for 12 years and remained her friend after the lawmaker lost re-election in 2000.

"Very tough, very shrewd," Wolfe said. "Ramona never really paid much attention to party except when she was running (for election)."

Barnes became House speaker in 1993 with the help of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers that included an unprecedented 18 freshmen lawmakers.

House Speaker Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican, was among that group of newcomers.

"She took us under her wing and steered us in directions that I think left a lasting legacy now," said Kott. "We are still steering the ship in the direction she left us."

Also in that group were former House Speaker Brian Porter and the powerful former chairman of the House Finance Committee, Eldon Mulder, and current co-chairman Bill Williams.

Barnes was born in Pikeville, Tenn., and balanced a soft Tennessee drawl with a hard tongue that often got her in trouble. Senate President Rick Halford said Barnes argued her stand on issues with "velocity and volume."

Under attack by an Alaska Native lawmaker for a lack of spending on rural water and sewer projects, Barnes called the lawmaker a bigot who hated white people. Barnes later apologized for the remarks.

On her desk, Barnes displayed a pair of brass balls - actually 2-pound fishing sinkers painted gold - given to her by Halford as a joke.

"I think people recognized her as one of the guys," Kott said. "That was the reason for the brass balls."

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