Nancy Dahlstrom’s entry into politics was an unusual one. In 2002 she challenged then-Rep. Lisa Murkowski for a state House seat encompassing part of Eagle River and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Dahlstrom, a Republican, ran to Murkowski’s right, and lost.
A year later, Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed Lisa Murkowski, his daughter, to the U.S. Senate and asked Dahlstrom to replace her in Juneau. Since then, Dahlstrom said she’s stayed in government because she loves Alaska and wants to make it a better place.
“We can all make a difference. Everything doesn’t always go the way we want it to in politics, but we can always work together,” she said in a recent interview.
In Dahlstrom’s 20 years in politics, she’s lived mostly out of the spotlight. She shuffled through her state House seat, advisor roles and a commissioner appointment before running on Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s reelection ticket. Now, as second in command, she’ll oversee the state election system, and says she’s ready for the challenge.
Dahlstrom was born in Baltimore into a military family. She finished high school in Utah and visited Alaska for the first time with a friend after graduating from high school.
“And we both just loved it. And this has been home, I made a decision to stay,” she said.
Dahlstrom worked for multiple utility companies, including Chugach Electric, Alaskcom and GCI, and was involved in community councils before she ran for state House.
In her seven years in the legislature, she earned a reputation for being sharp, honest and willing to collaborate.
“Nancy has a deep-seated sense of public service, and she really wants to serve Alaska in a broad way,” said Beth Kerttula, a former Democratic lawmaker from Juneau who served at the same time as Dahlstrom.
Kerttula said she and Dahlstrom disagreed on social issues, but their party differences never stopped them from working together.
“Nancy and I did disagree from time to time, but you still have a working relationship and actually, you mostly have a friendship,” Kerttula said.
Over the last decade, Dahlstrom has held a number of jobs. She worked as an advisor in the Parnell administration and spent time in the private sector. In 2018 she ran for state House again and won, but never actually took the seat because Dunleavy, starting his first term as governor, asked her to head the Department of Corrections.
Four years later he reached out again, this time to ask her to run as his lieutenant governor.
“It’s not a phone call. I was expecting, you know?” Dahlstrom said.
Dunleavy’s first lieutenant governor, Kevin Meyer, announced last year he would not run for reelection, saying he didn’t want to balance campaigning and overseeing elections.
John Coghill, a former North Pole and Fairbanks legislator, said he thinks Dahlstrom was a good ideological match for Dunleavy and well-versed in political issues, even though she wasn’t a name most voters recognized.
“She’s probably well known in her area,” said Coghill. “But I think here in the Interior, probably low [name recognition]. Dunleavy has a very high rating here in the Interior so I think he was the name they were looking at.”
Dunleavy won last month’s election despite his few appearances on the campaign trail — Dahlstrom made even fewer.
Lieutenant governors are often overlooked, and overshadowed by governors. But in Alaska they have a major role overseeing the state election system, an area of government that in recent years has had lots of attention as conservatives frequently question the integrity of elections. Dahlstrom said she does not have concerns about election integrity at this point.
“And if concerns do come up about the integrity, I’ll be the first one talking about it,” she added.
Elections have seen a lot of changes in the last year. The state saw its first ranked choice elections this summer and fall. And last week, longtime Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai retired.
Dahlstrom was clear she did not ask for Fenumiai’s resignation.
“I think that she did a good job leading our first rank choice [election],” Dahlstrom said.
Dahlstrom said she’s committed to upholding the policies of the election system set in law. Even so, she expressed reservations about the ranked choice system.
“I still have people that will say to me, ‘I still don’t get it.’ And these are smart people, people running big businesses,” she said. “Maybe sometimes things are too simple and we try to make them harder.”
The state Senate has signaled it’s unlikely to pass a repeal of ranked choice voting, but it could come up as a ballot initiative instead.
The Division of Elections is currently reviewing an application for a ballot initiative to overturn ranked choice voting and the new open primary system. Dahlstrom wasn’t aware of its status a few days into the job, but it will ultimately be up to her to determine whether it passes muster and ends up on the next statewide ballot.