Kreiss-Tomkins: Not Alaska’s Youngest Lawmaker

The certification of the House District 34 race this week has put Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins in the legislature. At 23-years old, he is almost the youngest person ever elected to state government.

Terry Gardiner was 22 when he was elected to represent Ketchikan in the legislature in 1972. Gardiner had interned in both the Washington state legislature, and worked as an aide to Juneau Representative Mike Miller in Alaska. So, he was already a familiar face in government when he won a seat in the capitol – maybe a little too familiar, as he learned on his first day. He was standing in the doorway to the House, preparing to be sworn in.

“And a senior legislator came along who had served many terms, and assumed I was one of the pages. And she handed me this big pile of stuff and said, Here, do X, Y, and Z – a typical task that pages would be asked. And so I just said, Okay!”

Gardiner was not quite ready to burst this particular legislator’s bubble. He finally did, when a few minutes later she reminded him that pages were not permitted to sit in the legislators’ chairs.

After that initial misunderstanding, Gardiner says his job was the same as any freshman legislator’s, regardless of age.

“I think it’s a matter of demonstrating that you are serious, you’re willing to do your homework, you’re willing to listen to the senior members and learn from them – which you have to do. You can’t learn it all by reading the rule book. You have to learn from personal politics, and get to know people, and that all takes time.”

Gardiner says he got in touch with Kreiss-Tomkins – through a mutual acquaintance – late in the campaign, and offered what advice he could. Gardiner better than anyone, understands what Kreiss-Tomkins is up against.

“I was in the minority in my first term, and faced a similar situation: Jonathan will be a freshman, be young, and be in the minority. Theoretically, that’s about as low on the totem as you can be.”

Gardiner received a committee chairmanship in his second term, and eventually became Speaker in 1978 at age 28. Pipeline politics, the permanent fund, and non-profit hatcheries were all high-profile issues in his era. Gardiner says he welcomed the input of lobbyists – at least those he trusted – whom he considered subject-area experts. A lot of being in the legislature is sorting wheat from chaff, because Gardiner says the job never ends.

“As a legislator you don’t have a huge staff, but you have an endless workload. You have constituents, groups, and communities that need stuff, and you need help.”

Like Kreiss-Tomkins, Gardiner was just shy of graduating from college when he was elected. He was studying Political Science and History at Western Washington University, and planned to use his experience running for the legislature as the basis of his senior thesis. Instead, he won, served ten years, and then founded Silver Lining Seafoods. He doesn’t miss that degree.

“My time in the legislature was the best college education anyone could ever hope for because you are exposed to so many issues, you have to learn about so many issues, and there are all these experts at your fingertips willing to give you information and opinions. And you hear both sides of an issue. No one could ever have more educational time than to be a member of the legislature.”

Gardiner was about 22 years and 5 month old when he took office in January 1973. He holds the honor of Alaska’s youngest legislator by just a couple of months over former representative – and later state senator — John Sackett who took office in 1967 at the age of 22 years, 7 months. Sackett, however, was the youngest person ever elected president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, at age 21.

Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins is a relative oldster: he’ll be about three weeks shy of his 24th birthday when he takes office on January 15.

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Robert Woolsey is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.