Ask Mike Chenault why he wanted his current job and he’ll give you two answers.
“I wonder about that at times,” joked Chenault, who serves as Speaker of the House in the Alaska Legislature.
“I just thought that, at the time, I was probably the best fit for the job,” he said after reflecting for a moment.
Ask his colleagues and they’ll likely agree with Chenault’s second answer. Many cite the Nikiski Republican as one of the area’s biggest champions in the State House and as one of the reasons the Kenai Peninsula Borough received a record amount of funding in 2011 from the governor’s capital budget, including millions of dollars for roads and other critical projects.
Chenault contends that’s simply his job — to “get our business done,” he said.
“You always wonder, especially at the end of session when you are about to pull your hair out … ‘What am I doing here? Why did I do this?’” he said. “I could be a chairman of another committee and not have near the responsibilities. But at the end of the day that’s what you were elected to do is go down there and try to represent the people you represent, plus the rest of the state … and try to do the right thing.”
Chenault, who was first elected in 2000, has been Speaker of the House since 2009. Running for the speaker position was “kind of a popularity contest,” he joked.
“You take the position seriously, but to get to that position, you’re voted in by your peers,” he said.
During his tenure, he has made a lasting impression on fellow area representative Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna.
“He is probably not a good (legislator), he’s probably a great one,” Olson said. “He’s the best speaker I have worked for since I have been down there.”
Olson thinks Chenault’s best quality is being able to bring people and legislators together.
“He has put together an extremely cohesive organization,” Olson said. “We don’t have a lot of infighting you can often see in either the House or the Senate, either of the organizations, minority or majority. Everyone works well together as a result of him keeping everything balanced.”
Former borough mayor Dave Carey agreed, adding that Chenault’s legislative abilities are one of the reason’s the borough came out swimmingly in Gov. Sean Parnell’s 2012 capital budget. The $9 million for the Homer Transfer Site was “absolutely his doing,” Carey added.
“I don’t like to toot my own horn, I mean I don’t think that’s what I am down there for is to take credit,” Chenault said when asked about the borough’s 2012 funding. “The borough has a lot of issues that need to be addressed and I have done what I can to try to address those.”
Chenault said he represents, at least in his mind, the whole borough as much as any one specific part of it. He doesn’t necessarily take pride in how much he can get for the area from the governor, but rather in making sure the area gets what it really needs.
“Sometimes that was a larger amount, and sometimes that was a smaller amount,” he said. “But, it moved the borough forward and like I said, could I have been greedy and tried to get more? Probably. But I think as long as we get what we need, we are going to be OK.”
Parnell recently released his proposed $1.8 billion fiscal year 2013 capital budget, but Chenault said he expects the list to grow to around $2.6 billion. Missing from that budget, however, is the previously requested $10 million in funding for a proposed gas line from Anchor Point to Homer. The project was the borough’s second-highest priority last year, behind the transfer site, Carey said.
Chenault said he couldn’t speak for the governor on the reason why it wasn’t included in the last capital budget and said the notion it was one or the other — transfer site or gas line — was false.
“I think (the governor) was more interested in them having some skin in the game,” he said. “I know he was having some conversations with them and I think that it is a good possibility this year that they’ll probably see some money in order to extend that gas line.”
Carey said he is particularly impressed with how Chenault is able to have his finger on the pulse of the borough at all times.
“He goes to those meetings to hear what are the needs, whether it is the senior citizens, whether it is the recreation groups in terms of gun clubs, snowmachine trails or Tsalteshi — he is someone that goes and listens to his community,” Carey said.
But sometimes, Chenault said he feels like he has his feet in both camps — advocating for local funding as a representative and doing what’s best for the whole state. However, he said being aware of that balance and relying on the Legislature’s division of powers, is remedy enough.
The key, he said, is to decide where you stand as a legislator, and then stand there.
“I have the backbone to not back down from an issue if I think it is important,” he said.
The biggest skill he’s learned as a stalwart for the state and borough is how best to treat people even during disagreements, he said.
“Politics is the art of compromise and it’s how you compromise without going against your principles and be able to get legislation passed,” he said.