Democrats seize control of Alaska House, fracturing Capitol power structure

 Austin Baird / KTUU
Austin Baird / KTUU (KTUU)
Published: Nov. 9, 2016 at 2:45 PM AKST
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Alaska Democrats have a silver lining one day after seeing Congress and the presidency slip into Republican control.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, has been selected as speaker of the state House for the upcoming legislative session, marking the first time since 1993 the chamber's top position will be held by a Democrat.

The move comes as a left-leaning bipartisan group narrowly took control of the House, a dynamic that may lead to conflict and perhaps gridlock with a Senate dominated by conservative Republicans.

"Our caucus is organized around the central purpose of tackling the fiscal crisis in Alaska," Edgmon said during a news conference at Dimond Center Hotel. "We're at a point now where we've got about a year of savings left. I think I could speak for virtually every legislator: we want to continue the basic services we provide to our communities and our constituents."

A year ago, the Republican-controlled House majority caucus was composed of 26 members with 13 Democrats forming the minority caucus.

The dramatic shakeup in the Capitol power structure required a sweep of seven GOP House majority caucus members in the August primary election -- including two who unsuccessfully ran for Senate seats -- followed by two more upsets on Tuesday.

Of the November upsets, first was a race between Rep. Liz Vazquez, R-Anchorage, and Independent Jason Grenn who ran with significant financial support from political finance committee paid for by labor unions.

Grenn ended up with a 223 vote advantage over Vazquez, helped in part by a third-party candidate, Dustin Darden, an anti-flouride activist who ran for the Alaska Independence Party and picked up 654 votes.

Democrat Justin Parish, a first time candidate for political office who teaches special education at a middle school, upset Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau.

Also requisite for this reorganization was convincing moderate Republicans to switch sides: Reps. Gabrielle LeDoux of Anchorage, Paul Seaton of Homer, and Louise Stutes of Kodiak all agreed.

That puts the voting bloc at 22, just above the minimum number of votes needed to pass legislation.

While more Republicans could theoretically join the new caucus -- Tuck invites anyone who will commit support to sweeping changes to how government is financed -- there could be backlash.

Tuckerman Babcock, executive director of the Alaska GOP, lashed out at the three Republican representatives who defected.

"You won your elections running as Republicans in your respective districts," he wrote. "That was an illusion, a false picture you presented to the voters.

"I, as chairman, will recommend the state central committee that the Alaska Republican Party begin to actively recruit and support a transparent, honest member of the Republican team for the next election cycle."

Beyond the threat of future electoral consequences, the new House faces another more immediate obstacle: conservative Republicans maintain a 15-5 lead in the Senate.

While the upper chamber did approve a Permanent Fund restructure a year ago, it remains unclear if there is support in the Senate to pass similar legislation again let alone a tax on individuals or another significant measure taking aim at the multibillion dollar deficit.

"It isn't going to be that much of a change only because, with the very divided House last year, it was difficult anyway," said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, announced Wednesday as the new senate president.

Another layer of complexity to achieving big policy goals -- particularly controversial budget measures -- is that Gov. Bill Walker has now hit the halfway mark in his four-year term.

Walker, an Independent, is almost certain to face a Republican challenger in 2018 and maybe also a Democratic challenger. The winner of that race has significant control over how legislative districts are drawn, essentially shaping the power structure of Juneau for a decade.

Maybe as soon as this legislative session and maybe later, those politics will start to factor into decisions made by legislators posturing for a run against Walker: "I've always said that at a certain time and place -- I don't know when it's going to be -- that the Democrats will abandon Bill Walker," Kelly said.