Alaska House still without leadership coalition a week before session starts
January 11, 2023
As Americans watched the U.S. House struggle to elect a leader, Alaskans may soon see a similar situation develop in the state House of Representatives.
“These proceedings back east, it’s a stark reminder to a lot of us that we could be going through the same thing,” said Independent Rep. Bryce Edgmon, of Dillingham.
With just a week before the Legislature convenes in Juneau, the state House has yet to organize, with both the House’s existing mostly Democratic-led coalition majority and the Republican caucus short of the required 21-vote majority.
Lawmakers say it’s too early to tell whether the Alaska House will definitely resemble the U.S. House on Jan. 17, the first day of session. Most members will arrive in Juneau this week, allowing in-person leadership negotiations.
Legislators say their goal is to avoid what happened in 2019 and 2021, when the House didn’t elect a leader until a month after the start of the session.
For the moment, said Independent Rep. Dan Ortiz, of Ketchikan, “we’re still in the probing phase. When we talk from one side to the other, we’re still filling each other in as to what groups could live with, and relationships and numbers.”
Republican members of the House are optimistic about the prospect of forming a predominantly Republican coalition majority as early as this week. While unwilling to discuss any cross-party deals that may be planned, they said their main advantage is that they are united in a way that isn’t the case in the U.S. House.
“I don’t see our Republicans as being fractured like that,” said Palmer Rep. DeLena Johnson. “We’re not fighting over who’s going to be the speaker in that same way. What we’re dealing with is just not having a clear majority from one party or the other.”
In November, Alaskans elected 21 Republicans, 13 Democrats and six independents (including undeclared and nonpartisan candidates) to the 40-person state House.
While those numbers give Republicans a minimal majority, the reality is more complicated.
One Republican, Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes, has been speaker of the House for the past two years, overseeing a 21-person coalition majority that included independents, mostly Democrats and two Republicans. One of those Republicans, Kelly Merrick, of Eagle River, is now in the Senate.
Since the November election, Stutes hasn’t caucused with the other 20 Republicans.
Another Republican, Wasilla Rep. David Eastman, has also been excluded from the Republican caucus. Eastman repeatedly criticized his Republican colleagues during prior legislative sessions and recently survived a legal challenge that threatened to have him disqualified from the Legislature for alleged disloyalty to the United States. He’s also defending himself against an ethics investigation.
“We’re basically at 19 and 19,” Ortiz said of the two groups, excluding Stutes and Eastman from the Republican total. “I just don’t see either side effectively moving forward without the help of the other side,” he said.
The coalition’s total also isn’t certain. Including Stutes would raise it to 20, but several independent representatives-elect said they’re willing to consider offers from the House Republican caucus and shouldn’t be considered a guaranteed vote for the existing coalition.
Ortiz is one of those. Sitka Rep.-elect Rebecca Himschoot is another. Elected as a nonpartisan, she said she supports “looking at organization from all angles.”
Several lawmakers are looking more closely at organizing around particular legislation or a particular goal, rather than the traditional party divide.
Reps. Josiah Patkotak of Utqiagvik and Calvin Schrage of Anchorage are independents who said they are keeping an open mind.
“What are you going to get 21 people to unify around?” Schrage said, suggesting that agreement on issues like education funding and resource development could lead to agreement on a House leadership structure.
“My general assessment is that at the end of the day, with whatever happens with organization, you’re going to be left with a moderate group that isn’t going to be able to do everything that some of the most progressive or conservative members might want to achieve. I think the political realities — and the numbers — necessitate a moderate agenda,” he said.
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