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Major Moves as State Legislature Returns to Work

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Representative Chris Tuck speaks with Speaker Mike Checault. Image courtesy of Gavel Alaska.
Representative Chris Tuck speaks with Speaker Mike Checault. Image courtesy of Gavel Alaska.

A little after 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday, the Alaska State House Speaker Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) struck the gavel to begin the second session of the 28th Legislature.

The first day is always a bit awkward to watch. Both chambers’ galleries are awash in high-fives and handshakes; conducting glowing introductions of staff and family members in attendance through ear-to-ear grins. The mood, for anyone who has watched a full session, is disturbingly chipper. Day-One Legislature is a universe away from the weary and stressed lawmakers and staff zooming around the capitol building as the days grow longer (both in workload and sunlight hours) and the close of session draws nearer.

However, the traditional opening day optimism was marred with two notable leadership changes within the Minority Caucus and the sudden departure of a Democratic staple.

 

Step on up, Senator Hollis French.

Senator Hollis French (D-Anchorage) moved into his new role as Minority Leader. He takes over the role filled last year by Senator Johnny Ellis, who French described to colleagues as a mentor. Ellis assumed duties after the 2012 election, when a large pick-up of three seats by the state GOP dissolved the bipartisan working group.

“For over a decade, I’ve watched [Ellis’s] example of civility and of working across the aisle and I’ve tried to learn from it,” French said on the senate floor. “For over a decade, I’ve seen him passionately advance his own beliefs here while still being open to principled compromise.”

If that sounds a bit like campaign-speak, it’s because it probably is.

French is not running for reelection to his senate seat next year, instead opting to run for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket. The West Anchorage lawmaker has been a very vocal leader in the campaign to repeal last year’s oil tax cuts. The new leadership position could be more about posturing for electoral gains later this year. The Democrats don’t have enough votes to get anything done strictly along party lines.

 

So long, Representative Beth Kerttula.

Longtime state representative, and House Minority Leader, Beth Kerttula (D-Juneau) announced that she would be stepping down from office. She has accepted a position as Visiting Fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University, a nonpartisan institution that deals with ocean policy decisions. Kerttula has an extensive background in coastal issues, including her role as an assistant attorney general working with the Alaska Coastal Zone Management program under two administrations (full disclosure: I worked with her on the 2012 initiative to restore that program).

The new job didn’t afford Representative Kerttula much turnaround time. Her resignation will take effect Friday, and the new gig starts February 2.

Kerttula didn’t rule out the possibility of returning to political office in the future, and emphasized that the move doesn’t constitute a permanent change of scenery.

“The position is one year, at Stanford, with the opportunity to renegotiate for another year,” Kerttula said in a press availability immediately after the house had adjourned. “Jim and I aren’t selling our house or anything. We’ll be right back. Alaska’s home for us.”

Her absence kicks the process to find a replacement into gear. Her local party organization, the Tongass Democrats, now must put together a list of prospective appointees from which the governor will select a replacement. KTOO has reported that Juneau assemblyman Jesse Kiehl will likely be a name on that list, and the Anchorage Daily News added Kerttula’s staffer, Ken Alper.

Kerttula knows that filling the vacancy she is leaving may not be that simple. In 2009, her name was submitted to fill the vacancy of outgoing Senator Kim Elton, who left for a job in the Obama Administration’s Department of Interior. At the time, then-Governor Sarah Palin rejected Kerttula, who was the only name put in the hat by the Democratic Party. In a back-in-forth battle of intransigence between the Democrats and the governor that year, two Palin appointees were rejected and Juneau ended up without any representation for the entire session.

Last night, Kerttula told the Dispatch’s Pat Forgey that subsequent rules changes prevent that possibility on their end.

So long as that vacancy is not filled, the Democrats are stuck in a tricky situation. With four Democrats caucusing with Republicans, Kerttula’s departure leaves the minority with just nine members; one below the threshold for official minority status. This means that all nine members could be stripped of committee positions and have their staff sent packing. House Speaker Chenault says that this isn’t going to happen, but nothing beyond a stated agreement stops him from changing his mind.

 

Introducing Minority Leader Chris Tuck.

The House Minority Caucus has selected Anchorage Democratic state representative Chris Tuck as the new minority leader. Tuck has been serving as the minority whip, and the caucus felt the promotion made the most sense. Of the three moves made on Tuesday, this might have been the strangest.

When Lindsey Holmes defected to the GOP last year, dropping the number of Democratic lawmakers down to ten, many (myself included) were fairly certain that Tuck would follow her across the aisle. Tuck was a cosponsor of the Stand Your Ground law enacted last session, and a cosponsor on Chenault’s nullification bill. He voted “yes” on the original version of the legislation, which would have required state authorities to arrest federal agents seeking to enforce federal laws regarding gun restrictions.

At the time, state representative Les Gara (D-Anchorage) pleaded with his colleagues not to pass either bill. “I believe the Second Amendment is a fundamental right. I support it and I support it in a way that does not send our constituents and our troopers to the federal penitentiary…. I’m not willing to deprive my constituents of their liberty.”

Freshman state representative Andy Josephson echoed Gara’s sentiment, saying the bill violated both the Alaska and the U.S. Constitutions. “I’ve hardly started to take air in my lungs, and I’m being asked to violate [that] oath.”

On the first day of this new session, the lawmaker who cosponsored and voted for those laws was selected as the new top Democrat in the house. The move could be an attempted olive branch to show Republicans a willingness to compromise. But compromise generally starts off somewhere in the middle. Tuck, as the ranking member of the Democratic Party in the state house, is starting off quite a few steps to the right of center.

The positions if minority and majority leader generally go to rising stars who have (or the party wants to give) upward momentum. They are emblematic of the party’s public image and stated values. Think: Lance Pruitt. This latest decision by the House Minority Caucus might be problematic for a party struggling to cultivate a consistent identity, repair a damaged brand, and deliver a progressive-populist message (add odds with the move to elevate French) to return them to electoral viability.

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