For the last several months, I’ve been asked by more than a few people how Democrats took control of conservative Alaska’s politics. I used to work in Alaska politics and frequently write about Alaska and Alaska politics and know some of the players personally. So how did Democrats end up in control of Alaskan politics?
They didn’t. The governor is a republican, the state Senate is controlled by the republicans, and while the state House is led by a Democrat-heavy coalition, Democrats are not in control of the Alaska House of Representatives. Partisan sour grapes have led partisan mouthpieces to sullenly complain that they have to share power with their political adversaries.
To be specific, a bipartisan coalition of democrats, republicans, and independents/undeclared legislators formed a very last-minute majority caucus. The Speaker of the House is Bryce Edgmon, an undeclared who was a Democrat just a few months ago. He was Speaker for the last two years in another bipartisan House majority — although with only three republicans and two independents it wouldn’t have been unfair to call that a Democrat-led majority. Rep. Edgmon was also a long-time Democratic member of the Republican-led ‘bipartisan’ majority caucus that led the House for over a decade. As were most rural Democrats, for most years that the Republicans led a ‘bipartisan’ majority.
The majority leader in the Alaska House is conservative Republican Steve Thompson from Fairbanks, who I consider a friend. Rep. Thompson has been a member of the Republican-led ‘bipartisan’ majority caucus every year since his first election. He caucused with the Republican minority the last two years.
The Rules Chair is Republican Chuck Kopp of Anchorage. He was a member of the Republican minority the last two years, his first in elected office.
The Finance Committee is co-chaired by Democrat Neal Foster of Nome (also a friend, I considered his office and staff a safe refuge) and conservative Republican Tammie Wilson of Fairbanks. The vice-chair is Republican Jennifer Johnston of Anchorage. Rep. Foster has caucused with the Republicans every year he has been in the Legislature (except the last two years).
Those are the most powerful positions in the House: Speaker, Majority Leader, Rules Chair, Co-Chairs and Vice-Chair of Finance. One Democrat, one former Democrat, four Republicans. That is not a Democrat-controlled House.
I know some Alaska republicans are kvetching about the fact that most of the other committees are chaired nearly exclusively by Democrats but that is difficult to take seriously. A conservative Republican is Rules Chair and another is Finance Co-Chair but it’s Health & Social Services or Transportation that Republicans really wanted? That’s too stupid to take seriously.
The reason this is a question is that the 2018 election left the House in a near 50/50 split. 21 Republicans and 20 Democrats and Independents (who will caucus with the Democrats) were sent to Juneau. This isn’t even so much of a problem. As alluded to above, there have been many Republican-led ‘bipartisan’ majorities in the Alaska House in which rural Democrats were reliable members. A close partisan split wasn’t the problem.
The problem was that House Republicans are fractured and disorganized.
The day after the election they held a press conference in which they announced their caucus organization for the upcoming Legislative Session. They had organized a 21-member Republican only majority caucus, deciding on a Speaker of the House and other major top spots. There were in fact, 23 Republicans in the House but two of them had royally pissed off their partisan colleagues, especially Tuckerman Babcock, then-state GOP chair, and were not part of the majority Republican caucus.
These two apostates chose to join the previous Legislature’s Democrat-led bipartisan majority two years ago and have political consequences to face. Full disclosure, I ran the (successful!) reelection campaign for one of these renegade republicans and we faced much more opposition from the Republican party than from the Democrats. They financed a write-in candidate against us, ran attack ads on TV, radio, web, and newspapers, and warned activists and volunteers and donors away from us. The Party did the same against the other Republican heretic as well.
So the House Republicans had a slim majority by their own design. To make matters worse, they had another loose cannon in their ranks. Representative David Eastman of Wasilla is a bomb-throwing conservative fond of divisive rhetoric and political stunts. He had derailed the budget vote the previous year, been censured for racist comments, had his committee assignments stripped after an ethics violation, and now Rep. Eastman stunned his fellow Republicans by telling the press that he hadn’t yet decided to vote with the new Republican majority.
Rep. Eastman effectively killed the Republican majority at that point. Another Republican, Gary Knopp of Kenai, announced that he would not support the Republican majority caucus because relying on Rep. Eastman was unrealistic and posed a significant threat to an orderly Session. Rep. Knopp encouraged the formation of a bipartisan majority; there’s an apocalyptic budget crisis in Alaska right now and a bipartisan caucus would be better than razor’s edge partisan votes.
The state of Alaska is not strong right now. The Legislature needs to put that partisan crap to the side and work for Alaska. We did it before (believe it or not, when Sarah Palin was governor. That was my first year in the Capitol and her policy that year of ‘fix the budget, forget the social issues’ was damn effective.) and they should be doing it again.
Thomas Brown is a history teacher and recovering political consultant hiding out in the American South. He is also managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan Press, Alaska Native News, GEN, Human Events, Times of Israel, Dialogue & Discourse. Argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.
Originally published at http://intheswamp.wordpress.com on April 29, 2019.