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Ruffridge reflects on first session in the statehouse

Riley Board
Rep. Justin Ruffridge co-chairs the House Education Committee on April 13.

Justin Ruffridge says there are two important things Juneau has that Soldotna doesn’t: a bowling alley, and a frozen yogurt shop.

“Other than that, I’d rather be home,” he said.

Ruffridge is a freshman Republican representative, a pharmacist and the owner of several pharmacies in the state, including Soldotna Professional Pharmacy.

It’s pharmacy, in part, that brought Ruffridge to politics. Through one of his other locations — Juneau Drug Company, just three blocks from the statehouse — Ruffridge became a frequent visitor to the capitol.

“Starting to come down here for work a lot more gave me opportunities to lobby for pro-pharmacy legislation, and I’d been doing that for four or five years, helping promote our profession,” he said. And that’s kind of what got me interested, a little bit, in what politics even is.”

Much of Ruffridge’s work in the legislature so far reflects that background. One of his bills would exempt veterinarians from registering with the state’s opioid database, which vets say creates logistical and ethical challenges. That bill has already passed the house, and Ruffridge said it appears to have broad, bipartisan support. He’s also introduced legislation that would update statutes related to the practice of pharmacy.

Ruffridge has also found himself co-chairing the House Education Committee, an assignment he said came as a surprise. It’s been a particularly busy time for the committee, as the legislature debates a potential increase to school funding and considers a bill from Gov. Mike Dunleavy that would increase parental involvement in issues related to gender and sexuality in schools.

“It’s a funny place to end up. It’s not where I expected to be, co-chairing education. But it was a big part of my campaign, I heard a lot from people about how education is important to them, and I’m glad for the opportunity to do it,” he said.

Ruffridge said he’s learned a lot in that committee, especially about rural, small schools with specific needs. After the legislative session ends, Ruffridge said his plan is to travel around the state and become more familiar with the needs of those schools. Places on his itinerary include the Lower Kuskokwim School District, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, and schools throughout Southeast Alaska.

Ruffridge said he was surprised to find out how much personal relationships matter when it comes to doing legislative work.

“It comes down to a very human element of: How do you work well with other people? That really defines a lot of the work that happens in this building, and that was somewhat surprising to me, a good lesson learned in the first three months,” he said.

One way he’s worked to cultivate those relationships is through the formation of the Freshman Caucus, a coalition of first-year house members from various political backgrounds and parts of the state.

This session has seen one of the largest house freshman classes in legislative history.

“We do not agree on everything,” Ruffridge said. “In fact, it’s out of that that a lot of our strength is born, which is our ability to disagree with each other and still work through some issues and try to come to some consensus.”

He said if the deeply diverse freshman caucus can agree on an issue — like on rejecting pay increases for legislators, for example — he thinks the broader legislature probably can, too.

Ruffridge is in Juneau with his wife and two kids. He originally planned to move south alone, but after considering a commute between southeast and Soldotna every couple weeks, the family decided, last minute, to make the move together.

“Having a family here is a source of strength, and remembering sometimes in this echochamber of a building that there’s still a real reason that you do the work you do, and that’s because you have a family you care about and kids you want to grow up in a state that has a future,” he said.

Ruffridge said sometimes the tight legislative schedule and the seclusion of being in Juneau make him feel like he’s locked in a school, with the clock ticking down on the work that needs to get done. Still, he said the session has been a good learning experience, so far, and he’s looking forward to a productive time between the end of this session and the start of the next.

This story was supported by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism's Legislative Reporter Exchange Program.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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