Kott, Murkowski campaing for job of House speaker

Posted: Monday, July 29, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Though the primary election is weeks away and the general election three months off, Republican lawmakers are making an early bid for speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives.

Rep. Pete Kott of Eagle River and Rep. Lisa Murkowski of Anchorage are the leading candidates openly seeking support for the House's top leadership spot.

To get the job, a legislator needs to win an election within the House majority party's caucus.

Republicans have dominated the House, holding 27 of 40 seats during the past two sessions. The House operated under the leadership of Rep. Brian Porter of Anchorage, but Porter is not running for re-election. In his wake, a sharp battle between the two Republican factions in the House has broken out.

First elected in 1992, Kott is one of the longest-serving Republican representatives. He lost to Porter in a bid for speaker in 1998. But he found a role in the House leadership as chairman of the House Rules Committee.

Murkowski was elected in 1998. But she has emerged as a leader with a voice more moderate than many of her Republican colleagues. Earlier this year, she led a successful drive for a hike in alcohol taxes. Also, she has helped build bridges with Democrats to seek a solution to Alaska's $1 billion budget gap.

Both Murkowski and Kott concede it is early to organize the House. With new legislative districts, it is also tough to predict what the new Legislature will look like, they say.

''We don't even know who is going to win (the primaries) or even what the House is going to look like,'' said Rep. Gary Stevens of Kodiak. Stevens said he has talked with both Kott and Murkowski about the speaker's post. But he has not committed to either.

''This is all premature,'' he said.

Kott faces no opposition in the fall elections. Nancy Dahlstrom of Eagle River is challenging Murkowski in the Republican primary.

The Kott-Murkowski contest reflects the split in the House Republican majority last year. Kott allied himself with the conservative leadership of Porter and House Finance co-chairman Eldon Mulder. Murkowski was part of a more moderate group calling for new revenue sources. It was known as the Fiscal Policy Caucus.

Murkowski has the support of fiscal allies like Rep. Jim Whitaker of Fairbanks. Kott has backing from conservatives like Reps. Vic Kohring of Wasilla and Kevin Meyer of Anchorage.

Meyer committed to Kott because he has more seniority in the House. Also, Murkowski's father, U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, is running for governor. Should he win, Meyer said, he is concerned about the appearance of having a Murkowski as both House speaker and governor.

''That would look weird, that Murkowskis are running the whole state,'' Meyer said.

Murkowski said blood ties to the executive branch would not be a problem.

''I've made it clear that if I were speaker, my allegiance would have to lie with the caucus,'' she said.

Whitaker charges that Kott is flexing his power as a fund-raiser and his close ties with Anchorage construction giant Veco Corp. to pressure people to support him.

''What's happening is that if people will commit to Kott for speaker, there will be a significant fund-raising effort on their behalf,'' Whitaker said. Whitaker said he knows of four cases in which such a choice has been offered candidates. He declined to name those candidates.

Murkowski said she also believes that Veco is backing Kott for speaker.

Veco is heavily involved in Alaska politics, giving thousands to mostly Republican politicians. In the Legislature, Kott is one of Veco's closest allies, championing legislation that would have guaranteed the company a contract to build new private prisons.

This summer, Kott is actively fund-raising with Veco for many House Republican candidates, including Stevens, Meyer and Rep. Drew Scalzi of Homer. All say that there is no link between the fund-raising and support for Kott.

Kott and Veco Corp. vice president Rick Smith deny that there is any coordination between their fund raising and Kott's desire for the speaker's chair.

''At no time have I implied that any fund raising would be tied to their support for me as speaker,'' Kott said.

Smith said that political contributions to Republican House candidates by him or other executives, such as Veco president Pete Leathard or Veco chairman Bill Allen, are not coordinated and are unrelated to Kott's ambition to be speaker.

''I think Kott would be a great speaker, but I have no role in making that happen,'' Smith said.

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