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Longtime Alaska Lawmaker Max Gruenberg Dies

Rep. Max Gruenberg, a longtime member of the Alaska House, died Sunday at his residence here.

By Nathaniel Herz

Rep. Max Gruenberg, a longtime member of the Alaska House, died Sunday at his residence here.

The death of Gruenberg, 72, an Anchorage Democrat, was announced Sunday morning by Gov. Bill Walker.

Gruenberg's widow, Kayla Epstein, said in a phone interview that Gruenberg collapsed Sunday morning in Juneau after a "lovely evening" with friends on Saturday.

"He said, 'Oh, I have to go to the bathroom,' and I heard a 'kerplunk' and that was it," Epstein said. "He never regained consciousness."

Gruenberg had two previous heart attacks while in Juneau, Epstein said, and an autopsy will not be conducted.

Gruenberg represented East Anchorage House District 16. His first term in the Legislature began in 1985 and he served through 1992, then was elected again in 2003 and served through this year. In October, he filed for re-election for another two-year term.

In 2014, he beat Republican Don Hadley by more than 500 votes, 3,253 to 2,745.

By law and custom, Anchorage Democrats will submit three candidates to the governor, who will select Gruenberg's replacement to serve the rest of his term.

House Democrats can accept or reject Walker's selection.

Gruenberg, a retired family attorney, served as House majority leader in the 1980s and was a longtime member of the House Judiciary Committee.

He was known in the Capitol for his kindness and his enthusiasm for grappling with the minutiae of lawmaking -- prompting staffers, during one year's annual legislative skits, to lampoon him as the "Great Amender," to the tune of the 1955 Platters song "Great Pretender."

"I and my colleagues will remember Max as a great parliamentarian and a master wordsmith who understood that the words making up Alaska law matter," Anchorage Rep. Chris Tuck, the current House Democratic leader, said in a prepared statement.

Gruenberg was listed as co-sponsor of more than two-dozen bills during the current legislative session, and primary sponsor of six more.

House Speaker Mike Chenault called Gruenberg "a walking encyclopedia."

"He'd make bills better," Chenault, a Republican from Nikiski, said in a prepared statement. "His finger prints are probably on more Alaska law than any other legislator or governor. He was a tireless worker, spending hours researching and conversing with members on both sides of the aisle, to put forth the cleanest, best policies for the State."

One of the current bills Gruenberg co-sponsored, House Bill 147, was submitted by Rep. Liz Vazquez, an Anchorage Republican. It would allow courts to include pets in restraining orders, and would require consideration of pets' well-being in divorce cases.

The bill was Gruenberg's idea, Vazquez said, and he appealed to her to take it up as a bipartisan effort.

"This is a bill that goes to the heart of who Max was. He cared about animals; he cared about people," Vazquez said Sunday. "I will crusade to get it passed."

Gruenberg served in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy as a gunnery officer on a tank landing ship, according to an old campaign website. He said he earned three battle stars.

He was born and raised in San Francisco. He's survived by two sons, two grandchildren, two brothers and two sisters, as well as an aunt, said Epstein, Gruenberg's widow.

The last lawmaker to die in office was Carl Gatto, in 2012. Gruenberg helped Gatto into the building after he collapsed on the sidewalk.

Walker ordered state flags to be lowered in honor of Gruenberg and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was found dead Saturday.

(c)2016 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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