One of the Homer area’s longest serving legislators, and Alaska’s second female Speaker of the House, has died. Gail Phillips, 76, died March 25, 2021, at her Anchorage home of cancer and with family surrounding her.
Phillips’ daughter, Robin, called her “a force of nature.”
“She was the instigator of the Grand Adventure in politics and in life,” Phillips wrote in a message. “She made sure we felt the same passion she did. She was a mentor and a leader. … Nothing was done small; everything was on a large scale and with vigor.”
Elected to the Homer City Council in 1981, in 1986 Phillips was appointed to and later elected to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. She worked for two years as an aide to Sen. Tim Kelly before being elected representative of the lower Kenai Peninsula in 1990. In 1993 she became House Majority Leader and in 1995 Speaker of the House, immediately succeeding Rep. Ramona Barnes. In 1995, Phillips served along other women leaders, including Senate President Drue Pierce and Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer. Pierce continually won reelection until retiring from elected politics in 2001.
Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, honored Phillips for her role as a female leader in Alaska.
“She represented our district and blazed trails for women in Alaskan politics,” Vance wrote on her Facebook page.
In a follow-up email, Vance also wrote, “Former Speaker Phillips is still spoken of with great honor in the halls of our Capitol. She left a lasting legacy as the second woman Speaker of the House in our state history, but more importantly, she is remembered for prioritizing good roads and responsible resource development.”
Of Phillips, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said, “She was a friend, mentor, great legislator, and was incredibly passionate about Alaska. I was honored to serve alongside her in the Alaska State Legislature and saw firsthand her passion and leadership in action. Gail was one of those great Alaskan leaders whose contributions you can’t even begin to enumerate.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of Phillips on Wednesday. In a press release, Dunleavy wrote, “Gail Phillips made significant and lasting contributions to the state of Alaska through a life of public service. … Gail was one who was widely respected by her colleagues and constituents alike … (First Lady) Rose and I thank Gail for her commitment to Alaska over her multiple terms in office and offer our condolences to the Phillips family in their time of grieving.”
Born May 15, 1944 to Lois and Wallace McIver in Juneau, Phillips was the oldest of seven girls. She grew up in Council and later Nome.
“Gail was the matriarch and a natural leader, though her sisters called it ‘bossy,’” Robin Phillips wrote in her mother’s obituary.
Living in Nome, Phillips thrived in competition in everything from sports to the high school carnival queen. In summers she worked at the family mining camp in Council. She attended her first statewide political convention while a junior in high school. Her interest in politics began in college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she worked on the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. She graduated with a Bachelor of arts in business education from UAF. At UAF she met her husband, Walt Phillips, who proposed to her on Valentine’s Day in 1965. They married Aug. 14, 1965, in a double ceremony with her sister, Barbie, and husband, Stan Lindskoog. Her grandfather, Rev. Ludvig Ost, presided.
In college, Phillips worked as a ticket agent in Nome for Wein and Alaska Airlines. After college, she taught one year as a high school business teacher before moving to Anchorage to work for Western Airlines as a ticket agent and reservation clerk. The Phillips family moved to Homer in 1978, where Phillip took a job with Wein as station manager.
In 1974, Phillips began working with Joe Redington to popularize the Iditarod sled dog race. She served on the Iditarod Trail Committee on the board of directors and as secretary. As a member of “The Old Iditarod Gang,” she helped write and publish “Iditarod — The First Ten Years,” an account of the founding of the epic long-distance sled dog race.
In Homer, Gail and Walt Phillips owned Quiet Sports, an outdoor recreation store. One year she won an award as the top snowshoe seller in the world for Sherpa snowshoes. Former Homer News Managing Editor Joel Gay wrote fondly of working for Gail Phillips there.
“She had just taken over Quiet Sports when I returned to Homer in 1978 and she took me in like a long-lost family member,” Gay wrote in an email. “She hired me as bike and ski mechanic, entrusted me with her store, her green Cadillac and even her two young daughters when she occasionally got called to Anchorage for Iditarod business. She was a dear friend, and though we had differing politics, we always looked beyond that. Once, when I was president of the KBBI board, I went to Juneau to lobby for public radio funding. I was walking the halls with then-station manager Will Peterson when we ran into Gail. ‘Joel!’ she exclaimed, and threw her arms around me. It was a shock to my radio friends to see my relationship with the Speaker of the House. But that was Gail, just a wonderful human being for whom friends and family came first.”
Robin Phillips said her mother “understood she wouldn’t agree with everybody and they wouldn’t agree with her. She was always vocal about people who wanted to complain but wouldn’t vote.”
Phillips also was tireless in getting people registered to vote, her daughter said. She recalled campaigning once with her mother and encountering a cantankerous man who gave Gail Phillips an earful.
“She said, ‘You’re not even registered to vote, so why should I listen to you?’” Robin Phillips recalled. But then her mother added, “‘However, I have voter registration materials, and if you register to vote, I’d be happy to listen to you.”
Phillips is survived by her husband of 56 years, Walt; her daughter, Robin Phillips, her daughter Kim Griffith and grandsons Scott and Jace Griffith; sister, Barbie and husband Stan Lindskoog and their children Wendy and Joan; sister, Kay and husband Jim Hansen and their children Erin, Heidi and Peter; sister, Jan and husband El Slaughter and daughter Elin; sister, Cheryl and husband John Cappelletti and daughter Monica; sister, Susan and husband Darryl Sele and their children Marshal, Mac and Stefan; and sister Karen Lipari and her children, Philip, Matt and Daniel; as well as numerous grand nieces, grand nephews, cousins, and friends.
A celebration of life for Phillips is planned later in the spring or summer. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in her name for a scholarship fund to be established at UAF.