JUNEAU — Alaska Senate Republicans face pressure from within their party to reject Gov. Bill Walker’s pick to fill an open Senate seat after the independent Walker sidestepped a list of GOP finalists in making his selection.
Senate President Pete Kelly said Monday that Senate Republicans plan to meet early this week to discuss Walker’s appointment of Randall Kowalke to replace former Sen. Mike Dunleavy of Wasilla, who resigned to run for governor. Kelly did not specify a day.
Kowalke, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly member, was one of 11 applicants for the seat but not on the list of finalists submitted to Walker for consideration by Republicans from Dunleavy’s district.
Walker would not say if he had concerns with the three finalists advanced by the district, saying simply that he wanted to look more broadly at his options. He told The Associated Press that Kowalke had more support than the other applicants.
“He got more support in the district, and in this building, than I think the rest of them combined,” Walker said. Support for Kowalke came into his office unsolicited from mayors, business people and constituents of the district, he said.
When there is a legislative vacancy, state law requires the person appointed be from the same party as the person who left. Traditionally, the parties send the governor a list of finalists they have vetted.
A governor isn’t bound to the list, which Kelly acknowledged. But the appointment is subject to confirmation by members in the same chamber and of the same political party as the person who previously held the seat. In this case, that’s Senate Republicans.
“The thing that we’re struggling with is not Randall Kowalke; all indications are he’s a good Alaskan,” Kelly told reporters. But GOP leaders from Senate District E held a public process in evaluating candidates, he said.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche said the seat belongs to the people of that district: “We want them to feel that they were fairly heard, and at this point, nothing against Mr. Kowalke, because I don’t know him, we believe that they deserve to be heard.”
House and Senate members from the Matanuska-Susitna valley region urged Senate Republicans to not confirm Kowalke.
State GOP Chairman Tuckerman Babcock said Friday he has “no doubt” that Walker’s “ridiculous appointment” will be rejected. Babcock said that after submitting the list, he had no communication with Walker.
In an email to senators, Babcock said if the names were unacceptable to Walker he could have asked the party to reconsider and send additional nominees.
In 2009, then-Gov. Sarah Palin refused to appoint Beth Kerttula to an empty Senate seat after Democrats submitted only Kerttula’s name. Senate Democrats refused several Palin picks in a back and forth that consumed much of that session before the two sides agreed on Sen. Dennis Egan.
Last month, Walker appointed Rep. John Lincoln to replace former Rep. Dean Westlake, who resigned after being accused by female aides of unwanted touching and inappropriate comments. Lincoln was not on the original list submitted by Democrats in his district, but Jay Parmley, executive director of the state Democratic party, said Democrats were involved in the process throughout.
He said when it seemed that the three initial nominees were going nowhere, with Walker or House Democrats, Democrats from Westlake’s district sent Walker two additional names for consideration, including Lincoln’s.
One reason they gave Walker more options was because Parmley was concerned Walker would not pick any of the initial three finalists and instead would pick someone without party input, Parmley said. “So we made ourselves a part of the process,” he said.
Democrats are beginning the process of gathering applications for the House seat held by Rep. Zach Fansler, who resigned after being accused of hitting a woman. His resignation was effective Monday.
Parmley said he expects quality candidates to step forward and for Walker to choose from the list that district submits. But Parmley said the party plans to remain vigilant during the process again.