Lawmakers honor first African American woman elected to the Alaska House

Late Sen. Bettye J. Davis was the first African American woman elected to the Alaska House

Sen. Bettye J. Davis, D-Anchorage, 1938-2018, was the first African American woman to be elected to the Alaska House of Representatives and the first African American elected to the state Senate. (Courtesy photo | State of Alaska)

Sen. Bettye J. Davis, D-Anchorage, 1938-2018, was the first African American woman to be elected to the Alaska House of Representatives and the first African American elected to the state Senate. (Courtesy photo | State of Alaska)

The Alaska House of Representatives voted overwhelming in support of renaming a Capitol committee meeting room after the late Sen. Bettye J. Davis.

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, sponsored the resolution which would rename Room 106 the Bettye J. Davis Committee Room.

Davis was an Anchorage resident who served in both the House and Senate; she passed away in 2018. She was the first African American woman to be elected to the House and the first African American to be elected to the Senate.

“Her commitment to children and those living hard lives earned her recognition as the ‘Conscience of the Legislature.’ Her tireless advocacy for all Alaskans serves as an example for future generations of legislators,” the text of the resolution says.

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, sponsored a bill to rename a committee room at the Capitol after the late Sen. Bettye J. Davis, the first African American to be elected to the state Senate, on Monday. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, sponsored a bill to rename a committee room at the Capitol after the late Sen. Bettye J. Davis, the first African American to be elected to the state Senate, on Monday. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Several representatives rose to speak in favor of the resolution, calling Davis a “trailblazer” and an inspiration. Many told anecdotes about cordial interactions they had with Davis.

Even though Davis was a Democrat, a number of Republican lawmakers rose to speak in favor of naming the room in her honor.

Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, comes from the same district as Davis. He said that despite political differences, he and Davis never let those issues come between them and always had respectful dialogue as they worked together on several issues.

Rep. Sharon Jackson, R-Eagle River, asked what better way was there to begin the first floor session of February, which is Black History Month, than to honor Davis’ legacy.

Rep. Sharon Jackson, R-Eagle River, speaks in support of a bill to rename the House and Social Services Committee room at the Capitol after the late Senator Bettye J. Davis on Monday. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Rep. Sharon Jackson, R-Eagle River, speaks in support of a bill to rename the House and Social Services Committee room at the Capitol after the late Senator Bettye J. Davis on Monday. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Support for the resolution was not universal, however. Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, said that while he had respect for Davis, he called the resolution, “a mistake.”

Room 106 is currently used by the House Health and Social Services Committee, and could be the site of debates on “the sanctity of life,” Eastman said. Because Davis was an advocate of access to abortion, Eastman said he felt naming the room in her honor would be improper. He also suggested that future legislators might change the name of the room as politics changed over time.

Many of Eastman’s colleagues said that one issue should not prevent the Legislature from honoring Davis’ legacy.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, called Eastman’s reasoning a “slippery slope,” saying that if past politicians were judged on a single aspect of their lives, monuments such as the Washington Monument would have to be torn down.

Lawmakers ultimately voted 38-1 to rename the room, with only Eastman voting against. As the resolution is a concurrent resolution, it will be sent to the Senate for approval, according to Megan Wallace, director of legal services at the Legislative Affairs Office.

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