On the Loss of Max Gruenberg

Rep. Max Gruenberg gets a laugh from Sen. Bill Wielechowski.

Rep. Max Gruenberg gets a laugh from Sen. Bill Wielechowski.

Alaska loses big-hearted statesman


Medium Grind – Opinion

I am deeply saddened this morning to receive the news of Rep. Max Gruenberg’s passing. Max Gruenberg was a rare breed in the Alaska State Legislature, a true statesman with a heart of gold. I worked as the press guy for the House Democrats from 2005 to ’10 and had the distinct pleasure of getting to know Max as a legislator and friend. My heart goes out to his wife Kayla and their family, and also to his staffers. It was impossible to work for Max and not be part of the family.

We often heap praise upon public figures when they pass, but it’s no exaggeration or false praise to call Max a statesman. He was what I would call a good government legislator. During his first stint in the Legislature Max was part of a Democratic majority; he served as majority leader. When you’re in the majority it’s no great trick to pass legislation. But during his entire second legislative stretch, from 2003 until today, he was in the minority. I’d venture to say more of his legislation passed than any other minority member during that time, but not under his name. Max realized it was unlikely to pass substantive legislation as a minority member, but he didn’t let that stop him. When he thought he was on to something important he and his staff would do the leg work, doing the research, rounding up outside support and getting a bill drafted. Then, instead of futilely submitting hearing requests that would not likely bear fruit, he’d shop the bill around to his friends in the majority. Often, he’d find someone willing to take on prime sponsor status, giving the bill a much greater chance of passing.

As his press person I would sometimes ask Max to at least file the bill under his name first, so he’d get credit for the idea. If it was something he thought was truly important he’d resist, not wanting to burden the bill with political baggage. That’s a true good government legislator, and it’s a great example of how placing the public good ahead of personal glory can deliver for the public good.

Max also represented what has to one of the most diverse districts in the country. He was respected and beloved by his constituents of all stripes, and he knew that his district was not defined by physical boundaries, but rather by the people who lived in the neighborhoods in his community. I know a lot of people who have affectionately known him as Uncle Max, and we was a gentle and stalwart uncle.

Max had his loveable quirks, too. He has long been one of the real characters of the Legislature, and the characters are always our favorites. He was legendary for his attention to detail, seeking out the minutiae in bills and legislation, sometimes to the exasperation of his colleagues, but sometimes uncovering tiny details that amounted to huge flaws in bills, saving legislators from some embarrassment and saving Alaskans from unintended consequences. When then Rep. Lesil McGuire was chair of the House Judiciary committee she and Max had a warm, if not sometimes awkward, relationship. Max, with his keen legal microscope, could turn a 30 minute hearing into a marathon of legalese. He once offered an amendment to a bill – it may be the most complex amendment ever offered in the Alaska State Legislature. It was divided into several parts, each with subsections. Some subsections related back to other sections of the amendment. He’d broken it up that way because he was afraid it wouldn’t pass without a detailed explanation. The committee must have debated that amendment for 30 minutes, breaking several times for consultation with Legislative Legal and staffers, looping in and out of the various sections and subsections. Finally, one committee member suggested they just combine the sections into one single thing and just pass it. How bad could it be? It was pure Gruenberg, and he’d carried the day.

I remember another time when Max asked me to draft a press release about a bill he was about to introduce. It was complicated. I asked him to have his staff send me some bullet points or a summary so I could be sure to cover his priorities and intent. He’d decided he didn’t want to go that route, so he pressed me to just write it. I went to Max’s office to reach some kind of understanding. After some time he seemed to agree that I shouldn’t write the release cold. He said, “I’ll work on something myself for you to work from.” Then he reached behind his desk and pulled out one of the quintessential Max icons. Max had a dictation machine straight out of Perry Mason. I think it’s guts were mostly vacuum tubes, rubber belts and cloth-insulated wires. He turned it on with a hum and the smell of ozone. He held out the microphone to me and said, “So, if you WERE writing the press release, what would you put in the lede?” It was impossible not to laugh ... and not to concede defeat.

“OK, Max. I’ll put together a draft and send it to you.”

“Thank you.”

Max was also always interested in people personally. One time he asked me how my son was doing. Gianni was probably three at the time. I told Max about how, after we’d read a book several times, Gianni liked to just make up new stories based on the pictures. Max laughed and talked about the importance of imagination. He said he had a few sock puppets he’d made for his own kids – the main one being named, “Mr. Stinky,” if memory serves. With his trademark cherubic smile he reminisced about some of Mr. Stinky’s great performances, and how Stinky had even branched out to entertain at different schools around Anchorage. Over this past summer I reminded Max about that story and he offered to find Mr. Stinky and introduce him to Gianni. Sadly we never got to witness what must have been a charming show.

I also remember the time, during “Introduction of Guests” on the House floor Max opened an introduction describing the subject as an important person in his life; someone with a big heart and a great sense of humor. Normally, legislators direct the Floor’s attention to one of the galleries at the back of the hall to honor the introduced guest. But Max directed everyone’s attention to a door at the front of the hall that leads to the fire escape. When a page opened the door there stood Max’s wife Kayla Epstein, holding their beloved little dog, Pugly. There was laughter and approving pounding of desks.

Yeah, Max Gruenberg was a warm-hearted character and a genuine statesman, and Alaska has suffered a great loss today as Max and Pugly are finally reunited. We will miss you, Max. Thank you for your tireless service, your boundless wisdom and your genuine kindness.