Dems gain 1 state House seat; Senate unchanged

Posted: Thursday, November 04, 2004

ANCHORAGE Republicans in the state House will lose one seat overall to Democratic rivals but remain in control of 26 seats, barring changes in election results from questioned and absentee ballots.

In the Senate, the numbers remain unchanged from last session a 12-8 Republican-Democrat split.

As of Wednesday, Republicans led in 26 state House races with several too close to call. They controlled the House last year with a 28-member coalition that included one Democrat, Rep. Richard Foster of Nome.

If Election Day numbers stand, Republicans will have lost two seats to Democrats and gained one.

One of the closest races is District 5, which takes in Cordova, the northern Panhandle and rural southern Panhandle communities. Rep. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, now represents the district. With all 18 precincts reporting, the seat apparently has gone over to Republican Bill Thomas Jr., 57, a lobbyist and former chairman and CEO of Klukwan Inc., a village Native corporation.

Thomas holds an 89-vote lead over Democrat Tim June, a commercial fisherman, oceans policy adviser and boat builder. Both men have served on the borough assembly and school board in Haines.

Republicans are behind in two other districts the party controlled last session.

In District 6, a horseshoe that stretches around the Railbelt from Russian Mission in the west to the border with Canada in the east, Democrat Woodie Salmon had a 242-vote lead over Republican Ward Sattler of Stony River with all 46 precincts reporting.

Salmon, 52, is a pilot from Beaver and a former mayor of Fort Yukon. Sattler, 63, is a former legislative aide. He has been an electric utility manager, a teacher and administrator, commercial pilot and a flight instructor.

The seat is now held by Rep. Carl Morgan, R-Aniak, who chose to run for state Senate.

A Democrat also is leading in an Anchorage seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Cheryll Heinze. Berta Gardner 50, holds a 157-vote lead over Republican Andree McLeod, 49, with all seven precincts counted. Gardner, 50, is manager of Brown Bear Software.

Despite the possible net loss, House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, was pleased with the overall election.

''We had a good week,'' he said. ''We're going to have a good year.''

He was ruing the near miss by Republican Joe Miller, an attorney and former state and federal magistrate, who was trying to unseat Rep. David Guttenberg in the Fairbanks district covering the University of Alaska.

''I was rooting for my man Miller. We just couldn't get there. The demographics are just tough,'' Coghill said.

Before Guttenberg, District 8 voters sent Democrats John Davies and Niilo Koponen to the House. The close race indicates the district has become more moderate, Coghill said.

''That should be a heads up to Mr. Guttenberg.''

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, remained hopeful that the party gap could narrow even more with final results from another Fairbanks race. In District 9, incumbent Republican Jim Holm leads by just 34 votes over Democrat Scott Kawasaki with hundreds of questioned and absentee ballots left to count.

''That race is still very much in play,'' Berkowitz said. He also held out hope for a reversal between Thomas and June.

Two other races both involving Democrat incumbents from Anchorage remain too close to call. Rep. Max Gruenberg leads Republican William ''Tom'' Moffatt by 181 votes and Rep. Harry Crawford leads Republican Jeff Gonnason by 89 votes.

If current numbers hold, and Nome's Foster again joins a Republican-led coalition, the House majority would contain 27 votes. Coghill called that two-thirds majority ''the magic number.''

It takes a two-thirds vote for important procedural items such as pulling a bill from committee or adjusting the daily calendar, he said.

''Right now, that means we have no margin of error if someone doesn't agree with what we want to do in our caucus,'' he said.

A handful of House Republicans campaigned for a caucus more open to the public, he said.

''I'm sure their influence is going to be felt,'' he said.

Republicans will meet Thursday in Anchorage, if weather permits, to pick a speaker and committee chairmen. Reps. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, and John Harris, R-Valdez, are the leading contenders for speaker, Coghill said.

Berkowitz said a closer split of Republicans and Democrats in the House could lend itself to putting aside party politics and finding pragmatic solutions to state problems.

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