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Friday, November 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ramona Barnes a tough-talking Alaska legislator

The Associated Press

JUNEAU — Ramona Barnes, a tough-talking, gritty Republican from Anchorage who rose to be the first female speaker of the House, died Wednesday. She was 65.

First elected in 1978, Ms. Barnes served 20 years in the Legislature and gained a reputation for taking care of her friends and punishing her enemies.

She died at Providence Alaska Medical Center after being hospitalized Monday. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.

The family referred calls to her lawyer, Bill Cook, who said she had been hospitalized several times in the last year and had suffered repeated bouts of pneumonia and kidney problems.

"She had been very ill for quite some time," Cook said.

Ms. Barnes came to Alaska as a military wife and was elected to the state House after serving on the Elmendorf Air Force Base school board.

Once in the Legislature, Ms. Barnes found a passion for managing the egos and ideology of politicians to craft end-of-session deals.

"Basically, the Legislature was her life," said Eleanor Wolfe, who served as a legislative aide to Ms. Barnes for 12 years and remained her friend after the lawmaker lost a race for re-election in 2000.

"Very tough, very shrewd," Wolfe said. "Ramona never really paid much attention to party except when she was running (for election)."

Ms. Barnes became House speaker in 1993 with the help of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers that included an unprecedented 18 freshman lawmakers.

Ms. Barnes was born in Pikeville, Tenn., and balanced a soft Tennessee drawl with a hard tongue that often got her in trouble. Senate President Rick Halford said Ms. Barnes argued her stand on issues with "velocity and volume."

Defending her state-paid travel on the House floor in 1992, Ms. Barnes caused a stir with the state of Wyoming by calling Cheyenne "the pits of the earth."

Ms. Barnes was a social conservative who pushed for greater resource development — especially oil — in Alaska.

Bill Allen, the president and CEO of politically influential Anchorage oil-field-services company Veco, has been close friends with Ms. Barnes for years, he said.

"She had the influence to do whatever she wanted to do," Allen said.

Ms. Barnes was the first woman to hold every legislative leadership position from minority whip to majority leader. Divorced and the mother of three children, Ms. Barnes was proud of what she accomplished in life, Allen said.

"She believed she raised her kids and put the bread on the table," he said.

Gov. Frank Murkowski ordered state flags lowered to half-staff to honor Ms. Barnes and Matilda Stepovich, wife of Gov. Mike Stepovich, the last governor of the Alaska territory before it became a state in 1959.

Matilda Stepovich, 81, died Tuesday in Medford, Ore.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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