Relationships, respect integral to Rep. Tilton as Alaska’s House speaker
By Lexington Souers
Alaska Rep. Cathy Tilton served as House minority leader from 2021-22 before being elected as speaker of the House in 2023. As speaker, she directs the chamber’s legislative process, upholds bipartisanship and appoints committee membership. Tilton’s focus in that capacity is on building respect within the chamber and improving Alaska’s financial stability.
Prior to joining the Alaska State Legislature, Tilton enjoyed a long history in public service. Her 33-year career features work with both the Legislature and mayor’s office in Wasilla, Alaska. First elected in 2014, Tilton chaired the House Community & Regional Affairs Committee as a freshman legislator. She has since served on the House Finance and Rules Committees, among others.
What sets Alaska’s coalition apart from other state legislatures?
Tilton: In the past several elections, this electorate has elected people into office where it’s been really divided — for the House, especially. It could be even on a 20/20 divide if you’re looking at partisan membership. That’s been a hard thing to overcome. One of the key things, I think, to keeping this chamber a working chamber is to show that respect for yourself while also having respect for others. I want to bring respect back to the institution overall. Alaskans want us to get our jobs done. We have this partisan divide that, over the years, has become wider and wider. I recognize that we really need to stay true to our beliefs, our morals, our values, our constituency, but we can do that in a respectful manner where we can agree to disagree.
As speaker of the House, how do you approach bipartisan issues?
Tilton: Way back when I was in my first session as a legislator, I chaired the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, which is really about all of Alaska. Let’s face it, I was raised on the Railbelt, in south central Alaska. I hadn’t really traveled my own state very much. It was a really good experience for me to be on that committee to learn to balance the needs of my area with the needs of rural Alaska, and to take bills and bring those together in a collaboration so that that they were acceptable to both areas. That’s the way I’m approaching this as a speaker. We have to be conscientious of the needs of our entire caucus.
What unique challenges does Alaska face?
Tilton: The big issues that we’re dealing with are the volatility of our income and revenues. We are an oil revenue state, and, of course, we all know what the volatility of oil. Then there’s the tension between the permanent fund dividend, which is different than a lot of states have. There’s a little bit of tension between the dividend going to the people and public and government services. Where does that all fit in in our budget? We have a lot of tension in our own caucus, in this entire building and for the entire Legislature.
What experiences outside of the Legislature helped you become the leader that you are?
Tilton: I started out working at a law firm as a legal secretary, which I think gave me a little bit of background in some law. Then, for 10 years, I worked in local government. I worked for five mayors of Wasilla. That’s a lot of different types of leadership that I adjusted to. Before I ran for office, I was running my own business and taking care of my family. When you’re paying your own payroll and taking care of others, it’s a different perspective.
I stick to my values of who I am and what my constituency believes in. I’m from a really red part of Alaska. I’m very conservative. That being said, I do believe in fair treatment for everybody. I look at the fact that I am a leader of leaders. My role as the leader of leaders is to lift other leaders up and help them to become a leader. I won’t be here forever. I don’t expect to be. I feel like my role is to help them move into leadership spots.
What do you see for the future of Alaska?
Tilton: I would love to see us be able to come together on some sort of a fiscal plan. It’s going to be difficult. Obviously, the Legislature has been working on it for 20 years and haven’t gotten there yet. But I think that we’re at that point in Alaska where we don’t have a choice. We really have to do something here to stabilize Alaska.
The second thing I think I would like to see really worked on is high crime issues. There are a series of crime bill dealing with fentanyl, sex trafficking and those kinds of things. I think it’s important to Alaskans that we do something about those things, and I’m hoping that we can all work together to get those over the line.
Do you have any favorite memories from serving in the Alaska State Legislature?
Tilton: I was a private business owner and stayed home with my kids before I went to work at the Legislature. I really didn’t plan to run for office. Some of my favorite memories are from some of the relationships that I have built here that are uncommon. I was a minority leader last session and the minority leader for the Senate was Sen. Tom Begich. I feel like he and I — although on total opposite sides of the aisle — built a relationship and were able to work together to meet the needs of the minorities. I think that’s one memory. I don’t know that if you were out in the real world that you would have that opportunity to build a relationship, and what I would call a true friendship, with somebody who was on the other side of the aisle from you. I think I look at that as being one of the accomplishments from being here that I hold very dear. Relationships are really important to me.