Knopp remembered as ‘one-of-a-kind leader’ in Alaska

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, speaks during a House Minority press availability, April 6, 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, speaks during a House Minority press availability in April 2017.  (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Updated at 4:55 p.m. 

State Rep. Gary Knopp, who died in a plane crash on Friday, became a pivotal legislator during his two terms in the legislature. He was remembered by friends and former legislative colleagues as plainspoken and friendly.

Knopp was a Republican who decided not to vote for a Republican House speaker other than himself. This directly led to a coalition that includes Democrats, Republicans and independents forming the majority caucus in the House.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent, said Knopp was a close friend.

“Gary was a one-of-a-kind person, a one-of-a-kind leader in Alaska and he will be sorely missed by all of us in the Legislature, who at the end of the day really are one big family.” Edgmon said, adding that he was still in shock over Knopp’s death.

Knopp was an oil industry contractor who served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly before he was elected to the House in 2016. He represented Kenai and Soldotna in the chamber.

Edgmon said Knopp was one of the more authentic people he’s met in politics, with an unmatched independent streak.

Edgmon said flying was important to Knopp, and that they had talked about Knopp flying himself to the Northwest Arctic region for hunting trips. Edgmon said Knopp made bold decisions in deciding where to fly to and in how he conducted himself in life.

“He took risks,” Edgmon said. “He was not afraid to get out in front of things.”

Knopp served in the all-Republican minority for two years. But he left the caucus after the 2018 election, citing the fact that Wasilla Rep. David Eastman hadn’t committed to supporting the caucus.

Knopp was criticized for going back on his word of voting for a Republican House speaker. Knopp said he fulfilled a commitment of voting for a Republican by voting for himself for speaker. He came up a vote short, before Edgmon was elected speaker.

Knopp’s district overlapped with half of Republican Sen. Peter Micciche’s. Micciche knew Knopp for decades, in both business and politics. He described Knopp as a regular guy, and his loss as devastating.

“It doesn’t matter how any individuals may feel about the way Gary served. The reality of it is, he did what he thought was right, whether you agreed with him or not,” Micciche said.

Knopp was running for re-election against two Republican challengers and his death could be pivotal in determining who controls the House next year. His two challengers,  Ron Gillham and Kelly Wolf, have said they want to join a primarily Republican caucus. The current majority has three votes more than is needed to hold most of the seats. Independent James Baisden also is running for the seat.

The day before he died, in an interview with Alaska Public Media and KTOO, Knopp described his approach to government. He said compromise was necessary. 

“I never make promises, just because, you don’t know what you can do,” he said. “I mean, you’re only one of a lot of people down there.”

Knopp said the Legislature shouldn’t swing too far right or left. 

“It’s not about a party thing, and it shouldn’t be about a party thing. It should be about the House functioning,” he said. “And I’m a firm believer that that coalition — that bipartisan coalition — we’re philosophically opposed on some issues, but there’s a lot of issues we aligned on. I thought we performed extremely well under the circumstances.”

On the House Finance committee, he opposed Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal last year. He described the potential impact of cutting a quarter of education spending or transferring oil property taxes from municipalities to the state in terms of lost Kenai Peninsula jobs.

Knopp is survived by his wife Helen.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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