JUNEAU — Rep. Beth Kerttula announced Tuesday that she is resigning from the Alaska Legislature for a fellowship with her alma mater, Stanford University.
Her resignation will take effect Friday. She stepped down as minority leader Tuesday, which was also the opening day of the new legislative session.
The Juneau Democrat has served in the House since 1999 and as minority leader since 2007. She hadn’t drawn a general election opponent since 2004 and would have been up for re-election again this year.
Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage, who had served as minority whip, succeeds Kerttula as leader. Minority Democrats plan to ask that Rep. Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks be allowed to replace Tuck on the House Resources Committee, given Tuck’s new role.
The resignation will leave the caucus with just nine members in the 40-member House until a new member is appointed. Ten is the minimum number of members required for a formal minority for purposes of committee assignments. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he planned no changes in the number of minority members on committees, saying a change in committee makeup, pending appointment of a replacement, would just cause disruption.
Under state law, when a vacancy occurs, the governor appoints a replacement within 30 days. The law calls for the appointee to be a member of the same political party as the predecessor. The appointee is subject to confirmation by a majority of House Democrats. That would include the four Democrats who caucus with majority Republicans.
Kerttula said she favors the practice of having the local Democratic organization submit names to the governor for appointment. She did not rule out another run for office after her stint at Stanford ends.
Kerttula is leaving to serve as visiting fellow with the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University in California. In that role, she will be involved in meetings and communications to help strengthen decision-makers’ understanding of the policy implications of changing oceans and climates, according to information provided by the minority leader’s press office.
It’s a one-year position, the office said, with an opportunity to extend it for another year. The fellowship, scheduled to begin Feb. 3, will require that Kerttula move to California.
The center’s executive director, Meg Caldwell, said Kerttula will help with how the center can facilitate informed discussions among policymakers about major ocean issues and challenges.
“The opportunity was just too great,” Kerttula said in an interview, during which her eyes occasionally welled with tears.
She felt bad about leaving in the midst of her term, but this was one of the few opportunities she ever would have considered leaving for, Kerttula said. There are many people in her district who are qualified to serve, and she knows the seat will be in good hands, she said.
She said she also felt the caucus was in a good place and that Tuck was more than ready to take over.
Kerttula said she found out she’d gotten the post last Friday.
The issues she will be working on will have bearing on Alaska, too, she said. She and her husband do not plan to sell their house.
Kerttula, 58, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Stanford and a law degree from the University of Santa Clara School of Law, according to her bio. She grew up in Alaska, and her father, Jay Kerttula, was a long-time state legislator.
Before running for the Legislature, Beth Kerttula worked in private practice and served as an assistant public defender in the 1980s and assistant attorney general in the 1990s. Kerttula has been a vocal advocate on women’s and children’s issues, equal rights and of Alaska getting its “fair share” for its oil and gas resources.
In the attorney general’s office, she worked with the state’s coastal management program and on oil and gas issues. As a legislator, she supported efforts to set standards for waste discharges from cruise ships. In more recent years, she supported — unsuccessfully — efforts to re-establish a coastal management program after it lapsed.
Bills she introduced will remain in play, Kerttula said. One she hopes other members will take up — and one she said she hates leaving — is HB139, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Other members of her caucus previously signed onto that bill.
Chenault praised Kerttula on Tuesday, and said it has been a pleasure working with her.
“She’s always been above board,” he said.
He added: “While we don’t see eye to eye on a number of issues, we still have the ability to communicate and try to get the things done that need to be done in Juneau.”
The two interacted, at times playfully, during a news conference following the House floor session in which Kerttula gave a farewell speech to a standing ovation. Chenault joked this all came down so fast, he didn’t have time to get Kerttula anything. So he rummaged around his office for a few items, including Mike Chenault paraphernalia that included a hat, jacket and water bottle.
Tuck said he plans to continue that kind of relationship with members of the other party. “That’s what we need to have,” he said. “We need to have both sides coming together, working on behalf of Alaskans.”
Tuck said Kerttula will take with her a lot of institutional knowledge and experience.
“It’s going to be a loss, no doubt about that,” Tuck said. “But with the vigor and the excitement of this caucus, with having so many new members and so many fresh ideas, we’re going to be successful.”