Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, speaks in the Alaska Legislature on Feb. 26, 2014 in this Empire file photo. Gruenberg died at his Juneau home on Sunday. He was 72 years old.

Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, speaks in the Alaska Legislature on Feb. 26, 2014 in this Empire file photo. Gruenberg died at his Juneau home on Sunday. He was 72 years old.

Anchorage Rep. Gruenberg dies Sunday at age 72

The most senior member of the Alaska House of Representatives has died.

Max Gruenberg, a Democrat representing an Anchorage district in the Alaska House of Representatives, collapsed at his Juneau home Sunday morning. He was 72 years old.

Gruenberg, a Vietnam War veteran and family lawyer, was elected to the House in 1985 and served until he made an unsuccessful run for Senate District H in 1992. After losing that race to Johnny Ellis, he stayed away from elected office for a decade. In 2002, he defeated Republican Randy Smith by just 31 votes to win House District 20. Though redistricting changed the boundary lines, Gruenberg stayed in office, earning a reputation as a thorough and detail-oriented lawmaker.

He twice served as House Majority Leader and at the time of his death was serving as the Minority Whip.

“We’re devastated,” said Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau. “He was a wonderful legislator and a close personal friend. He will be missed.”

Muñoz and Gruenberg worked together on a bill two years ago, she recalled, and she found him “very sharp,” with a “wonderful sense of humor.”

“He’d make bills better. His fingerprints are probably on more Alaska law than any other legislator or governor. He was a tireless worker, spending hours researching and conversing with members on both sides of the aisle, to put forth the cleanest, best policies for the state,” Speaker of the House Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said in a statement.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said he has known Gruenberg since the 1980s. “He’d drive you crazy sometimes because he was so meticulous, but he was fixing legislation as it was being drafted,” Egan said.

“This is a significant loss for all of Alaska,” Gov. Bill Walker said in a statement Sunday morning. “Max has been a steady and respected voice in the legislature. Donna and I are covering his loved ones with prayer during this very difficult time.”

Walker has ordered state flags to be lowered in honor of Gruenberg and Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who died Saturday.

Under state law and customary practice, Anchorage Democrats will select three possibilities to serve as Gruenberg’s replacement until the fall election. Walker will select one of those three, and the choice must be confirmed by House Democrats.

No timeline for that selection was immediately available.

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, said Gruenberg’s death is “going to be a big loss for the state.”

He called Gruenberg the parliamentarian of the House, someone familiar with the legislative body’s rules of procedure and protocol. “He was always good at providing advice,” Kito said, recalling when he was appointed to the House and then elected.

Kito said he’s still somewhat in shock over Gruenberg’s death. Kito and Gruenberg had been among the attendees of a Saturday-afternoon House minority meeting, and Kito said they had a nice conversation.

Gruenberg’s wife, Kayla Epstein, told the Alaska Dispatch News that on Sunday morning her husband suddenly collapsed.

No autopsy is planned. In addition to his wife, he leaves behind children and grandchildren.

“I’m really sad because I spent some time with him Friday night at a dinner and we had a good conversation,” Egan said. “We were going to get together this week about some ideas about sharing (building) staff.”

Gruenberg wasn’t born in Alaska — he was born in San Francisco — but after he came to Alaska following his Vietnam service, he was a dedicated Alaskan, Egan said.

“He dedicated his life to this state, to make not only his district better, but all of Alaska better.”

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