For rural Alaska lawmakers, local issues trumped party interests and swung the state House
The members of the House’s Bush Caucus explain how and why they flipped control of the chamber
The four members of the Alaska Bush Caucus, (from left to right) Reps. Neal Foster, D-Nome; C.J. McCormick, D-Bethel; Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; and Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, take their oaths of office on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. On Thursday, three of the four voted in favor of Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, for speaker of the House. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Last week, rural members of the Alaska House of Representatives ended the six-year reign of a predominantly Democratic coalition, flipping control of the House to a predominantly Republican coalition.
By joining 19 of the House’s 21 Republicans, the four members of the House’s rural “Bush Caucus” averted the kind of leadership deadlock that plagued the House in 2019 and 2021. They’ve also put themselves and their new coworkers in position to dictate the flow of legislation and items in the upcoming state budget.
In interviews and public statements, the four lawmakers — Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome; Rep. C.J. McCormick, D-Bethel; and Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik — said their decision came after dozens of alternative proposals failed and came about on the night before Rep. Cathay Tilton, R-Wasilla, was elected speaker of the House.
“After many hundreds of hours of discussions with other legislators, the team made the decision to take the offer to join an organization to be in a position of influence,” Edgmon said.
How it happened
“It’s always a tough decision,” Foster said.
Negotiations started the day after Election Day, Foster said, with calls between prospective members of the Alaska House.
November’s election results showed 21 Republicans elected to the 40-person House, but Republicans declined to work with Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, or Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.
That left them with 19 votes, two shy of the number needed for majority control of the Alaska House. The House’s multipartisan coalition, in charge for the past six years, also lacked the votes needed for control.
In private phone calls, text messages, Zoom chats and in-person meetings, lawmakers tried to sway one another to dozens of prospective and competing House majorities.
An attempt among first-time lawmakers to organize a bipartisan majority failed, though it received attention in the Alaska Landmine, a political website. Quieter ideas proposed by Republicans, Democrats and independents alike also failed.
From the start, the independent Patkotak was seen as a potential ally of a Republican organization. His Christian faith, interest in oil and gas development, and passion for hunting seemed to fit in better with the Republican group, he said.
Some Republicans believed he was close to joining them in 2021 and hoped to convince him in 2023. It wasn’t a sure thing, Patkotak said.
He didn’t want to split the Bush Caucus, which could have diluted the political power of rural Alaska in the House, and he wanted to see if Republicans were prepared to surrender enough control to bring the entire rural group along. The Bush Caucus members represent the four House districts covering Northern and Western Alaska.
He needed, he said, to see a formal report showing the committee assignments each member of the Bush Caucus would receive.
“I think we’ve always had the understanding that it’s better for the Bush Caucus to stay together,” Patkotak said.
A proposal was ready by the first day of the legislative session. It put Edgmon and Foster atop the powerful House Finance Committee. McCormick and Patkotak would be on the Community and Regional Affairs Committee — a common destination for legislation affecting cities, boroughs and rural Alaska — and Patkotak would be among the leadership of the new majority.
“He said, ‘This is a path forward that I see. What do you guys think about it?’” Foster said.
After talking among themselves, they agreed and spoke about their intentions shortly before the House convened on Tuesday.
With Patkotak favoring the Republican caucus and Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, likely to vote alongside other Republicans, “it was my belief they had the 21 votes to organize, regardless of the full Bush Caucus,” Edgmon said.
“This is the one avenue that seemed to be the most viable in terms of trying to keep it in one caucus,” Foster said.
Democrats and independents unsuccessfully tried to sway Edgmon, Foster and Patkotak. McCormick voted against Tilton as speaker, but stuck with the Bush Caucus and is now a member of the majority.
Before 2017, when the predominantly Democratic coalition took control, it was common for the Bush Caucus to join Republicans in the majority, the better to advocate for rural priorities.
“I work hard to put my district in the best possible position,” Edgmon said.
The key difference between then and now is that Republicans used to hold a majority without the Bush Caucus. Now, they hold a majority because of the Bush Caucus.
It’s creating some odd allies, at least by historical standards.
Six years ago, when Edgmon served as speaker of the House, the governing coalition voted to limit debate and tried to force a budget bill forward in an attempt to avert a government shutdown.
In an agitated speech, Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River joined a series of Republicans in denouncing Edgmon. His decision to limit debate, Saddler said, was “worse than Pearl Harbor.”
Saddler is now majority leader of the same organization that features Edgmon. He says he regrets those words but considers them the politics of the moment, an assessment Edgmon agrees with.
“That’s politics,” Edgmon said. “In the ebb and flow of politics, whatever happened years back is water way under the bridge.”
Local issues, not national political lines
“I’m certain there are going to be people who feel like they would rather have me here on one side or the other,” Foster said, but he feels like in his district, they’re in the minority.
Political parties, he said, don’t run deep.
“You don’t see a lot of, like, fundraising events, you don’t see a lot of (political) meetings like that,” he said.
Instead, Foster said, what matters is delivering the support — either direct financial payments like the Permanent Fund dividend, or indirectly, through government services — that his district needs.
That district, covering Nome and the Bering Strait coast, has the second-highest poverty rate of any House district in Alaska.
“We need to make sure that we’ve got housing that sort of shapes up,” Foster said. “What can we do about weatherization programs? Because, you know, when you come to folks who are just struggling to get by, what are you going to tell them?”
In the 32nd Legislature that ended last week, Patkotak was one of the most conservative members of the predominantly Democratic coalition that controlled the House.
Because that coalition had only 21 members, he was on the House’s bleeding edge, forced into uncomfortable votes on contentious issues. Now in the 33rd Legislature, he’s part of a 23-person majority and is on neither extreme politically.
The absence of a single member of the majority because of illness or a family emergency won’t bring business to a halt, as has occasionally happened over the past two years.
The Legislature isn’t a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday job, Patkotak noted. The need to research, meet constituents’ needs and work on legislative issues means that lawmakers are working long after they come off the House floor.
Patkotak’s third child was born about the time the 32nd Legislature began, and he wasn’t able to participate in the first two years of that child’s life because of the need to stay on call, Patkotak said.
“That plays a big role in my decision-making process,” he said. “I about missed them altogether.”
Important to the rest of the state, he noted, is the fact that the Bush Caucus’s decision short-circuits the tortuous leadership struggle the House endured in 2019 and 2021. It took three weeks in each case to elect a speaker because of the tight margins between Republicans and the multipartisan coalition.
Had the Bush Caucus stayed with the existing coalition, that deadlock could have returned.
McCormick, of Bethel, is the newest member of the Bush Caucus. Elected unopposed except for write-in candidates, he’s also the youngest member of the Legislature and a firm Democrat.
When it came time to vote for Tilton, he voted no but still agreed to join the majority.
The vote, he said, was a gesture of solidarity for his Democratic friends, and he hopes they will continue to work together. He doesn’t expect retaliation for his decision.
“That’s kind of been in the back of my mind, but I haven’t seen or heard anything like that,” McCormick said.
Part of the reason may be the fact that even though they are now in the minority, Democrats and independents still have a large amount of influence in the House.
Among the 11 members of the House Finance Committee, six are independents or Democrats. Coordinated action could enable them to block legislation or amend the state budget, though that’s hypothetical at this point.
Or, said Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau and a member of the minority, a lack of retribution could be a recognition that in Alaska’s flexible politics, this is normal.
“In this business,” she said, “you can’t afford to have hard feelings.”
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