When I sat down with Michael Pawlowski, I had not seen him in over ten years. Unlike some of my former students, however, I knew what he was up to. It was hard not to know, because he had been moving in prominent political circles in Alaska from the get-go, starting as Campaign Manager (and then staffer) for the late Cheryl Heinze in her successful run for State Representative in 2002, only a year after he graduated from Alaska Pacific University with his BA in Liberal Studies.
Since then, the guy we all call “Fish” had worked for Alaska Permanent Capital Management Company and for the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority, been an aide for the Alaska State Legislature specializing in oil, gas, energy and finance issues and had served as Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Revenue. He had played a major role in developing and promoting Senate Bill 21, an overhaul of the state’s oil tax regime. When we sat down to talk, he was about to leave for Washington, DC where he had just been added to the Republican staff of the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee by the Chair, Senator Lisa Murkowski.
When I told my former advisee “You are just exactly where I expected you to be,” he laughed, because the fact of the matter is that no one who knows Mike Pawlowski would be surprised, and he knows this full well.
Still. The tables where he’s been sitting for some time already have some incredibly high stakes. Where does someone this young get the wontons to, say, negotiate multi-billion dollar deals with multi-national oil companies?
“I just did it,” he shrugs and smiles. “That’s what APU challenged you to do. We got support in making an idea we had happen. APU taught us to have the ability to fail and to be accountable. It created a foundation in me that has given me a way to think strategically that is unique and invaluable and has allowed me to do anything, from developing financing for renewable energy programs to negotiating multibillion-dollar deals. APU also taught me to be open to experiences and to different kinds of people. At a small school like APU, you learn that everyone brings something to the table.”
Pawlowski, a lifelong and passionate Alaskan, has been deeply invested in the issues around energy and natural resource development for some time in both his home state and, more broadly, in the West. He wants a seat at the table when policy is being decided, and the fact of the matter is that he is better suited than most to be there. By this I mean that Mike Pawlowski, perhaps more than anyone I have ever met, has the temperament to be in the middle of this highly charged and polarizing arena and to emerge unruffled.
Even as an undergraduate student at APU, Pawlowski had the self-possession of a much older person and a confidence in his position on any issue that ran deeper than most. This is not to say that he was inflexible. But he was supremely well informed and his trenchant logic made him a formidable opponent in a debate, most especially because he did not get emotional. Ever. Disagreements did not make him angry. They did not cause him self-doubt. Where others became frustrated or sputtered with outrage, Fish remained calm and dispassionate and maintained his sense of humor. While I’ve no doubt Pawlowski enjoyed – and still enjoys – winning an argument, at the end of the day, being “right” really only mattered insofar as it meant having clarity and making good decisions. Whether or not you agree with his politics, these are qualities that make Mike Pawlowski a good politician. He wants a seat at the table not because he wants to gratify his ego. He wants a seat at the table because he wants to make a difference.