With session approaching, Alaska House members seek to avoid leadership struggle like in U.S. House

The chamber remains unorganized ahead of the legislative session’s Jan. 17 start

By: - January 6, 2023 5:59 am

The House floor on April 22, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney)

As Americans watch 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 Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham.

Eleven days before the Legislature convenes in Juneau, the state House has yet to organize, with both the House’s existing mostly Democratic coalition majority and the Republican caucus short of a 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 will arrive in Juneau next 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 Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-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 next week. 

I don’t see our Republicans as being fractured like that. ... 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.

– Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer

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 Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer. “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 notional majority, the reality is more complicated.

One Republican, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, has been speaker of the House for the past two years, overseeing a 21-person coalition majority that included independents, Democrats and two Republicans. One of those Republicans, Kelly Merrick, is now in the Senate, leaving Stutes unique in the House. 

Since the election, she hasn’t caucused with the other 20 Republicans.

Another Republican, Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, has also been excluded from the Republican caucus. Eastman repeatedly criticized his Republican colleagues during prior 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, 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’s Republican caucus and shouldn’t be considered a guaranteed vote for the existing coalition.

Ortiz is one of those. Rep.-elect Rebecca Himschoot of Sitka is another. Elected as a nonpartisan, she said she supports “looking at organization from all angles.”

That includes a proposal floated by the House’s first-time lawmakers at an Anchorage orientation session.

While Himschoot said that proposal amounted to “playing” rather than a serious discussion — an assessment shared by Edgmon and others — it’s caused lawmakers to look 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’re 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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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected].