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Mary Kathryn “Kay” Brown

Photo of Mary Kathryn “Kay” Brown
1950
Categories: 2017 Alumnae, Politics, Public Policy

Biography

The Anchorage Daily News, in a 1994 endorsement of Brown’s candidacy for reelection, said: “Commenting on the legislative career of downtown state Rep. Kay Brown requires a lengthy trip to the thesaurus of political superlatives. She is exceptionally smart. She keeps a workaholic’s pace around the Capitol and in her district. She has an excellent sense of the challenges facing Alaska, and the courage to tackle them, even when the solutions prove politically unpopular in the short term.

For years, she has labored to steer her colleagues away from fiscal irresponsibility and put state finances on a more sustainable, long-term footing. When powerful legislators are ready to go off half-cocked and pass bad bills, Rep. Brown raises piercing questions. She is a consistent, responsible voice for environmental protection, the interests of disadvantaged people and more responsive government.”

“If Alaska had 59 other lawmakers of Kay Brown’s stature, the state would be better prepared for the beginning of the 21st century, and citizens wouldn’t be so disgusted with the legislature,” the ADN said.

Brown was the prime sponsor of laws setting thermal and lighting standards for publicly financed houses and buildings; mandating reduction of and regulating hazardous waste; establishing family and medical leave for public employees; controlling access to tobacco; providing public access to electronic information; consolidating state housing agencies and increasing support for low income and rural housing; establishing confidentiality of communications between domestic violence counselors and victims; and instituting a “solicitors, don’t call me” option for consumers to increase telephone privacy.

Brown chaired a House Finance Fiscal Policy Subcommittee that conceived the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR), which was passed by voters in 1990 to deal with the problem of short-term oil revenue variability and to help maintain a stable level of public spending. Brown played a key role in the CBR’s passage. “Over nearly two decades, the CBR has almost single-handedly staved off massive budget shortfalls,” the Department of Revenue’s Tax Division wrote in 2009.

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union honored Brown as “Civil Libertarian of the Year” in 1994 and said, “This past legislative session Kay Brown worked tirelessly to hold the line against legislators looking for easy solutions to respond to the citizenry’s growing concerns for the level of crime and violence in Alaska’s urban and rural communities. Her successful work against reinstatement of the death penalty in Alaska, and her tireless but fruitless efforts against treating juveniles accused of certain crimes as adults are examples of her valiant efforts in the face of an uninformed public, well organized victims’ rights advocates, gleeful prosecutors, and demagoguery from the leadership of both Houses and top Department of Law officials,” the ACLU said in a resolution honoring Brown.

“Kay also spent much of the session fighting to maintain protections for indigent women, men, and children. Kay fought for and won a budget amendment to provide over $700,000 in additional funding needed to continue the efforts of Alaska’s Child Support Enforcement Division. In the face of what looked like sure passage of Representative Hanley’s workfare legislation, she also worked to maintain benefits for AFDC mothers, getting an amendment passed that exempted mothers of children under 6 years old from the forced work or community service program, while at the same time helping to defeat any attempts to eliminate or restrict funding for Adult Pubic Assistance and Aid to Families with Dependent Children,” the ACLU said of Brown.

“In a year when the Alaska Legislature seemed bent on increasing the government’s police and prosecutorial powers, with no respect for the privacy, due process, and equal protection rights guaranteed by the Constitutions of Alaska and the United States, Kay Brown’s action shone forth. Her intelligent, well-researched, and reasonable arguments for her positions brought Kay Brown respect and admiration from her peers and Alaskans across this state, even as they disagreed with and often ignored her and her sound advice. She often seemed a lone voice for respect for individual freedoms,” the ACLU said.

Throughout her career, Brown championed open government. “It’s essential that citizens have access to what the government is doing,” said Brown. “Open meetings and open records are fundamental to democracy.”

As a freshman legislator, one of Brown’s first acts was to refuse to attend a closed meeting of the Majority Caucus, which led the group to open their caucuses to public view. “As soon as she got to the Legislature, Kay Brown put her political future on the line with a stand that infuriated many of her overwhelmingly male colleagues,” Alaska Dispatch News Columnist Charles Wohlforth wrote in a recent column. “She sent an open letter to her first majority caucus meeting saying she would refuse to attend unless the media and the public were let in. By legislative tradition deliberations happened in private, although the law said otherwise. “

“It was a unique moment of courage, as Anchorage Daily News columnist Suzan Nightingale noted at the time,” Wohlforth wrote. “The showdown over open meetings in 1987 stands out as an example of how a leader should behave.”

In 1991, Brown and the Alaska State Employees Association successfully sued Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill to force release of public records detailing the new Hickel Administration’s plans to reorganize state government. The lawsuit was filed after Coghill repeatedly denied requests by reporters and Brown to unveil his controversial “red-dot, gold-dot” charts and associated documents. A state Superior Court ordered the state to allow immediate access to all files and materials regarding the administration’s review of the organization of state government.

When the legislature was not in session, Brown worked as an analyst and consultant for PlanGraphics, a firm specializing in implementation of Geographic Information Systems. In that capacity, she helped utilities and local government agencies assess data systems and address organizational issues. With other PlanGraphics’ staff, she co-authored the book, Geographic Information Systems: A Guide to the Technology, published in 1991 by Van Nostrand Reinhold and reprinted by Chapman & Hall Inc.

Brown retired from the legislature in 1996, not seeking reelection that fall. She said at the time she was doing so to spend more time with her infant daughter and husband and because she was disillusioned with the Republican-led Legislature. Brown said issues being pushed by Republican leaders, such as a ban on same-sex marriages and opposition to health insurance for employees’ unmarried domestic partners, entered into her decision not to seek reelection. “It’s getting harder to remain calm, cheerful and constructive in the face of ignorance and bigotry,” the AP reported Brown as saying at the time.

Before running for the legislature, Brown worked in the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for seven years. As Director of the Divisions of Oil and Gas and Minerals and Energy Management, Brown supervised the leasing, exploration and development of Alaska’s oil and natural gas resources. While she was Director, state North Slope royalty interests brought more than a billion dollars a year to the state treasury. Brown helped develop and institute a net profit leasing system so that the public treasury could capture a greater share of rent from state-owned oil, and instituted competitive bidding for sales of royalty oil, increasing income to the state treasury. She instituted a regular leasing schedule and oversaw the leasing of more than 2.5 million acres of state land for oil and gas exploration. Brown was a key witness in several major successful lawsuits against the industry for failing to pay the full amount of royalties owed.

After retiring from the Legislature, Brown became Executive Director of the Alaska Conservation Alliance and Alaska Conservation Voters. As the first executive director of this statewide coalition of Alaska environmental groups, she built the membership to 45 groups representing more than 45,000 individuals. She identified and articulated values shared by conservationists and mainstream Alaskans including support for a sustainable economy. Brown produced a daily drive-time show on KBYR featuring discussion of politics, conservation and social issues. Talk with Kay Brown began as a weekly show in 1996 and became a daily show in 1998.

Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. She continued working throughout her treatment, and is now thankful to be a 20-year survivor due to the excellent care of doctors and support of friends and family.

In 2000, Brown began working full time as a consultant as President of Kay Brown Communications. Under contract with the Alaska Conservation Voters (ACV), she managed its political program for several years. From 2001-2004, Brown led a progressive coalition that recruited, trained and supported candidates for public office. In 2002, Brown organized the Alaska Progressive Coalition, a diverse group of several hundred progressive activists. She managed the coalition’s five regional PACs that supported progressive candidates in local and state legislative elections in 2003 and 2004.

Brown helped progressives realize their goal of articulating a positive economic vision for Alaska by organizing the Prosperous Future Development (PFD) Coalition in 2003. Brown oversaw a work group of about 75 individuals who participated in developing the vision. She was editor and co-author of the resulting report, “An Economic Vision for a Prosperous Alaska.”

In 2005, Brown became the Alaska Communications Director for the Democratic National Committee, one of the initial wave of staffers from Gov. Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, and marking the first time that the national party had invested significant resources in Alaska. Brown worked for the national and state Democratic Parties and Democratic candidates in various capacities from 2005-2017.

In 2006, the Alaska Democratic Party sued the Division of Elections seeking to force release of public records needed to verify the 2004 election results. Through her work for the party, Brown uncovered a number of discrepancies including, in half of the House districts, more ballots being recorded as cast than there were registered voters in the district, according to the state’s official election tally. The Division of Elections refused for more than nine months to release the public records, but it did so just before a hearing was scheduled to begin in the lawsuit. A review of the audit trail of the electronic database for the 2004 elections, once released, showed that modifications were made to the database on July 12 and July 13, 2006, the ADP said.  The Division of Elections refused to explain why changes were made to the electronic file so long after the 2004 election. “It may have been incompetence on the part of some employees, or it may have been malicious, but the whole episode is a dark blot that eroded public confidence in the integrity of our election,” Brown said.

Although the remarkable 2004 results were publicly posted on the DOE web site for many years, that web page has been removed and the 2004 General Election results are no longer part of the state’s chronicle of past election results.

Brown served as Statewide Director for the 2008 Democratic Coordinated Campaign and as the Alaska Democrats’ Coordinated Campaign Director in 2010. In 2010-11, Brown was project manager for Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, a coalition of 17 organizations including unions, Alaska Native organizations and non-profits, that sought to prevent partisan gerrymandering by the Republican majority controlling the Redistricting Board.

Brown served as Executive Director of the Alaska Democratic Party from 2011 until retiring in early 2017. The Alaska party’s longest serving Executive Director; Brown helped Democrats pick up 3 seats in 2016, which was enough to flip the 40-member Alaska State House to Democratic control for the first time in 25 years. Alaska was one of 3 states in the country to flip a legislative chamber from red to blue in 2016.

In 2014 Brown helped orchestrate formation of the winning “unity ticket” of Governor Bill Walker, an Independent, and Lt. Governor Byron Mallott, a Democrat, and helped Democrats pick up two seats in the 60-member legislature. She helped elect a majority of progressives to take control of the Anchorage Assembly in 2013, and strengthen their majority to 8-3 in 2016.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1950, Brown was an only child, whose mother died when she was 15 and her father when she was 21. “Their early deaths made me self-reliant,” she said.

Brown received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Baylor University in 1973. She worked for United Press International in Atlanta for a few years, before moving to Alaska in 1976.

Her first job in Alaska was a feature writer for the Anchorage Times, where she and other reporters attempted to establish a union to push back on management’s interference in the newsroom. She worked next as a reporter, editor and co-owner of the Alaska Advocate, a statewide news magazine specializing in investigative and political reporting. In 1978 Brown went to work as an aide to Senate President John Rader.

Following Sen. Rader’s retirement, Brown worked as a Policy Analyst at the Legislative Research Agency and in several capacities at the Department of Natural Resources. Brown became Deputy Director of DNR’s Division of Minerals & Energy Management (DMEM) in 1980, and its Director in 1982. Under Gov. Sheffield’s administration DMEM was reorganized into two divisions, and Brown then became Director of Oil and Gas.

Brown married Mark Foster in 1991. They have one daughter, Katy Foster, who they adopted from the People’s Republic of China in 1996. Katy, graduated with honors from Anchorage’s West High School, is currently pursuing a degree in dietetics and nutrition at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Brown’s hobbies include yoga and travel. She is an active member of First Presbyterian Church Anchorage, where she is an Elder, Clerk of Session, sings in the choir and plays hand bells.

Honors and Awards

Olaus Murie Award for Outstanding Professional Contributions, Alaska Conservation Foundation (2004)

Legislative Award, American Society of Landscape Architects, Alaska Chapter (1999)

Civil Libertarian of the Year, Alaska Civil Liberties Union (1994)

Champion of Children, Anchorage Association for the Education of Young Children on behalf of the Children’s Defense Fund (1994)

Service Award, Kidpac (1993)

Advocate of the Year, Alaska Craftsman Home Program (1990)

Voted Outstanding Freshman Legislator by colleagues (1987)

Community Connections and Leadership Positions

Volunteer and supporter, Alaska Community Action on Toxics (1999- ). Worked to convince Anchorage School District to stop routine spraying of pesticides and to adopt a least-toxic pest management policy.

Chair, Environment and Resource Management Committee, Western Legislative Conference (1991-1992). Worked with Western state legislators on recycling and pollution prevention.

Alaska Women’s Political Caucus [now Alaska Women for Political Action]; Anchorage President (1996 and 2002).

Pacific Northwest Hazardous Waste Advisory Council (1988-1990). Participated in regional working group convened by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to address hazardous waste management.

Mentor, Leadership Anchorage (1999).

Alaska Common Ground Board of Directors (1997-98).

Legislative Member, State of Alaska Telecommunications Information Council (1991-1992) (1995-1996).

Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness Board of Directors (1995-96).

Alaska Special Olympics Board of Directors (1994-1996).

Delegate, White House Conference on Library and Information Services (1991).

Board member (ex officio), Anchorage Economic Development Corporation (1990-1996).

Additional Resources (publications)

How Kay Brown’s toughness and ethics helped shape Alaska, Alaska Dispatch News, Feb. 20, 2017, by Charles Wohlforth

https://www.adn.com/opinions/2017/02/20/how-kay-browns-toughness-and-ethics-helped-shape-alaska/

Revenue Source Book, Alaska Department of Revenue – Tax Division, Fall 2009 – The Constitutional Budget Reserve Fund: It’s Purpose, History and Use

http://www.akleg.gov/basis/get_documents.asp?session=27&docid=6670

Kay Brown’s Career a Model for Lawmakers, Anchorage Daily News editorial endorsement, Nov. 2, 1994

Lawmaker’s Absence, Letter Prompt Opening of House Majority Caucus, Anchorage Daily News, Feb. 4, 1987, by John Lindback

Lawmaker Likely to Pay For Standing up to Peer Pressure, Anchorage Daily News, Feb. 8, 1987, by Suzan Nightingale

Rep. Brown to Retire, by Associated Press, Juneau, April 15, 1996

Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/DcdBEKzbXY8