State House organization 'at a stalemate' in evenly divided chamber
December 21, 2022
After last month’s elections, the Alaska Capitol, so far, is split. Voters re-elected conservative Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and a centrist, bipartisan coalition is set to take control of the state Senate.
The makeup of the House governing majority is still uncertain. And it will likely be weeks before the 40-member House coalesces into a new majority of 21 or more legislators. It may not even happen before the session starts Jan. 17.
Election results that evenly split the House between two different factions, plus a high-profile lawsuit that could unseat an extremely conservative Republican, have left legislators in a deadlock that shows no sign of a quick resolution.
“We are at a stalemate,” said Anchorage Republican Rep. Laddie Shaw.
The stakes for Alaskans are high. Leaders of Alaska schools say their deficits are at crisis levels, and legislators have sharply different views over the merits of budget increases to account for steeply rising inflation. Bipartisan Senate and left-leaning House majorities, working together, would be far more likely to boost school spending than a Republican House majority teamed up with a conservative governor.
Meanwhile, after nearly a decade of wrangling, lawmakers have yet to agree on a formula to balance spending on public services with sending cash to constituents from the Alaska Permanent Fund. A Capitol controlled by conservatives would favor larger Permanent Fund checks and cuts to services, and would also be more likely to take up polarizing social issues, like abortion.
All of which makes control of the House — and its alignment with the governor or Senate — an especially crucial question.
The governing majority decides which bills to consider and budget priorities.
“The importance of forming the majority can’t be overstated,” said Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat who was re-elected to his sixth term.
Voters elected 21 Republicans — enough, mathematically, for a razor-thin majority. But one of those Republicans is Rep. Louise Stutes, of Kodiak.
Stutes, who represents a politically moderate coastal district, has caucused with the mostly Democratic majority for the past six years and was House speaker for the past two. If she stays with a Democratic-led majority caucus, the House would be perfectly split between a group of 20 remaining Republicans, and Stutes plus 19 Democrats and independents.
There’s only one way the deadlock appears likely to end: If at least one, and probably a few, of the most centrist members of either faction break away and form a coalition with the other. But interviews suggest that it will take far more time and pressure before those centrists seriously consider such a split.
“I haven’t seen or heard anything that would make me think that it’s in the best interests of the Interior, or my town or community,” said Will Stapp, a newly elected Republican from North Pole whom some liberal-leaning lawmakers see as a potential ally.
Jesse Sumner, a newly elected Republican from Wasilla, said he’s “willing to listen to offers” from Democrats and independents but remains skeptical of joining a coalition without other conservatives alongside him.
An independent seen as most likely to flip to a Republican-led caucus is Utqiagvik Rep. Josiah Patkotak. He represents Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope, which could make him more inclined to join resource-extraction-friendly Republicans.
He said he will consider an array of issues in deciding which caucus to join, including positions on mining and road projects, Permanent Fund dividends, rural energy issues and land access.
“All options are on the table,” Patkotak said.
One reason is the uncertain status of Rep. David Eastman, a Wasilla Republican who’s served in the Legislature since 2017 and quickly gained a reputation for extreme positions and statements, and for clashing with his own GOP colleagues.
Eastman was the only vote against a bill to honor Black veterans’ work building the Alaska Highway in his first year in office. Then, he drew bipartisan outrage for saying, without evidence, that some women in remote villages are glad to get pregnant so they can take state-paid trips to cities for abortions.
Last year, a leaked list showed that Eastman was a “lifetime member” of the Oath Keepers, a conservative group whose members participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
One of Eastman’s constituents and critics, Randall Kowalke, sued to challenge Eastman’s eligibility to serve in the House. The lawsuit hinges on a provision in the Alaska Constitution that bars from public office anyone who “advocates, or who aids or belongs to any party or association which advocates the overthrow by force or violence of the United States.”
The trial is underway, and lawmakers on both sides of the House’s party divide say the verdict will be crucial in determining the chamber’s balance of power.
That’s because according to his colleagues, Eastman, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, cannot be counted as a reliable vote for a Republican majority.
“He’s voted with us. He’s voted against us,” said Shaw, the Anchorage Republican. “I can’t say any more than that, other than he’s got some issues.”
If the judge strips Eastman of his seat, his replacement would be Stu Graham, a mainstream Republican who serves on the Wasilla City Council — likely giving a hypothetical House GOP majority an extra vote and a stronger chance at forming.
That dynamic means that some liberal-leaning lawmakers are privately hoping that Eastman will win the lawsuit and keep his seat — because such a result would force Republican leaders to find an extra vote to get to the 21 votes they need for a majority.
Legislators say it’s unlikely a new House majority will form before Judge Jack McKenna renders a verdict in the lawsuit against Eastman’s election — or even before the Alaska Supreme Court decides a likely appeal.
“I can’t start setting the table unless I know who all the dishes are,” said Patkotak.
This article was originally published in Northern Journal, a newsletter from journalist Nathaniel Herz.