GOP expects to retain smaller majority in Legislature

Posted: Sunday, October 20, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- For a decade, Alaska's ship of state has tilted right, with Republican majorities calling the shots in both the House and the Senate.

The tilt was so distinct the last two years, Republicans could override vetoes without crossover help from Democrat colleagues.

Despite redistricting and retirements, Republican dominance is expected to continue, though not with that supermajority, according to officials in both parties.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, predicts an 11-9 split in the Senate and a Republican advantage of about 23-17 in the House.

Randy Ruedrich, Alaska Republican Party chairman, predicts a few more Republican seats in each body for his party, depending on what happens in the remaining three weeks.

''The Democrats gave us 21,'' Ruedrich said, noting the lack of opposition in 17 House races and four Senate races.

Berkowitz said the Legislature is not getting the attention it usually receives.

''A lot of air has been sucked out of the races by the gubernatorial race,'' Berkowitz said.

Republicans held a 14-6 majority in the Senate last session. Five Republican senators chose not run.

Unless a write-in candidate pulls off a political miracle, the GOP enters November with four Senate seats in its corner.

Wrangell Republican Robin Taylor did not face re-election. Incumbents Alan Austerman of Kodiak and Ben Stevens of South Anchorage are running unopposed. Republican Scott Ogan won his primary race and faces no opposition in November.

Despite a redrawn district that now stretches toward Palmer, Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, is favored in his race, as are Lyda Green of Wasilla, Gary Wilken of Fairbanks, John Cowdery of Anchorage and Jerry Ward of Nikiski. State Reps. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, and Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, hope to step up to Senate seats vacated by Republican incumbents.

Anchorage Republican Dave Donley faces a strong challenge from former prosecutor Hollis French, a Democrat.

Democrats began election season with two seats in hand. Sen. Bettye Davis of Anchorage and Donny Olson of Nome did not face re-election. Democrats seek to return incumbents Kim Elton of Juneau, Georgianna Lincoln of Rampart, and Lyman Hoffman of Bethel. State Rep. Gretchen Guess faces political newcomer Tim Worthen in an East Anchorage race.

Berkowitz expects Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis to fend off a challenge from Harold Heinze, a former ARCO Alaska president and commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.

In Fairbanks, longtime Rep. John Davies hopes to prevail over car dealer and pitchman Ralph Seekins, known to anyone in the Interior who owns a television.

Berkowitz and Ruedrich acknowledge Seekins' name recognition -- both positive and negative.

''You can't change the kind of long-standing perception in the course of a campaign,'' Berkowitz said. ''The other thing is, John Davies has done a great job.''

Ruedrich said Fairbanks voters through the campaign are finding out that Seekins does more in the community than sell cars.

''Every candidate is a much more complex person than their business experience,'' Ruedrich said.

In the 40-member House, nine Republican state representatives chose not to run and two incumbents -- Jeannette James of North Pole and Drew Scalzi of Homer -- were defeated in the primary.

The GOP heads into the general election controlling 10 House seats. Incumbents Bill Williams of Ketchikan, Carl Morgan of Aniak, Jim Whitaker of Fairbanks, John Coghill of North Pole, John Harris of Valdez, Gary Stevens of Kodiak, Lisa Murkowski, Norm Rokeberg and Kevin Meyer of Anchorage, and newcomer Paul Seaton of Homer face no opposition.

Democrat Richard Foster, who has joined recent Republican majorities, is unopposed.

To make sure they retain control of the House, Republicans must win 11 more seats.

Republican Vic Kohring of Wasilla, Pete Kott of Eagle River and Mike Chenault face nonpartisan or minor party challenges.

Bev Masek of Willow is favored against Wasilla Democrat Kay Bills and Alaskan Independent Jon Pinard, as is incumbent Lesil McGuire against Democrat Jay Trumble and Libertarian Mickey Sexton.

The strongest challenge to an incumbent representative may be in Fairbanks, where one-term Democrat Joe Hayes Jr. faces Jim Holm, the son of a former legislator.

Incumbent Peggy Wilson of Wrangell faces Sitka attorney Denny Pearson, a Democrat, and Rep. Hugh Fate will be tested by former Fairbanks North Star Borough Assemblywoman Karen Parr.

But Republicans like their chances in races that feature no incumbents in traditional Republican districts.

''They're quality candidates in Republican areas,'' Ruedrich said, noting Carl Gatto of Palmer, Bill Stoltze of Chugiak and Bob Lynn of South Anchorage.

Four minority Democrats are unopposed: Les Gara of Anchorage and incumbents Carl Moses of Unalaska, Mary Kapsner of Bethel and Reggie Joule of Kotzebue.

Berkowitz expects significant Democrat gains, barring last minute attack ads by Republicans.

''There's a lot of apprehension about negative ads that will come out at the last minute,'' Berkowitz said. ''It's been our steadfast belief that you have to tell people what you're for, not just what you're against.''

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