Alaska House now back under GOP control after brief tug-of-war

Posted: Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A Democrat-led coalition with a group of Republicans that briefly claimed control of the Alaska House over the weekend appeared to have fizzled and come apart by Monday, putting a GOP-led majority back in firm control, members of the Kenai Peninsula delegation said Monday.

Rep. John Harris and nine other Republicans, including Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Representative-elect Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, appeared at a press conference Monday morning in Anchorage to announce they had commitments from 26 Republicans and had retaken control of the House, supplanting the "coup" organized by all 13 Democrats and some 10 Republicans over the weekend.

It takes 21 members to "control" the 40-seat House. How strong the coalition ever was is a matter of conjecture, at least among some of those Republicans who stayed put with the majority group.

"I think some of our majority members were somewhat hoodwinked into believing the coalition had a large group of followers in it," Chenault said Monday afternoon. "A half a dozen of those Republicans were somewhat lied to that some people were on the train and that they'd better get on board."

By Sunday, Chenault said, many of those Republicans were talking among themselves and learning the coalition wasn't as solid as they thought. Telephones were ringing off the hook as both sides attempted to shore up support.

"I think it is over with now," Chenault said Monday. "The caucus will probably meet this week, and if there is any punishment to be handed out, it will be done at that time. Every one of the majority members has expressed interest in being back in, except maybe one."

Chenault would not name that member, though it might be the current House Speaker, Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, who reportedly had not rejoined the Republican caucus as of Monday afternoon.

Chenault said he had stood to lose his position as co-chair of the House Finance Committee under the coalition.

"I was not part of the coalition that overturned the Republican majority," Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said. "But now, we are right back to where we were with a Republican majority and one Democrat, Richard Foster (of Nome)."

The coalition put together "in theory" and announced Saturday likely would have proved difficult in practice during the upcoming Legislative session, Seaton said.

"It was structured so that Republicans would have controlled all the chairmanships (of House committees), but the majority of the caucus would have been Democrats," he said. "That would have been a very interesting thing because the caucus sets the agenda. Whether that agenda would have been implemented by the chairs was the question. I don't think anyone had really considered that. It was mainly a power play by people who wanted other jobs."

Saturday, the coalition named Kott to continue in the speaker's role. But Harris, who the Republican caucus had named to replace Kott as speaker on Nov. 5, insisted the takeover attempt was at an end and that he would assume his role as speaker in the 24th Legislature.

"It's time to go to work and put some of this stuff behind us," Chenault said, expressing what he said was the opinion of the majority of Republicans.

That there are philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats is a given, Chenault said, but the events of the past few days should not impact the ability of the two parties to work together.

"We have worked in a bipartisan fashion with the minority over the last two years, and really over the four years I've been in the Legislature," he said. "We will continue to work on what is good for the state of Alaska."

Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, will remain in his post as House Minority Leader. He doesn't regret the move to try and form a coalition and the reasons are still alive.

"It was an effort to do something that transcends partisan politics," he said. "We wanted to make sure the structure in Juneau led us to solve problems instead of just fighting about them."

Berkowitz said he thought there would be some bruised feelings to overcome, but he predicted the events of the past few days wouldn't, in and of themselves, get in the way of efforts at bipartisanship. He said there had been "no impure motives" on either side, and that he and Harris would probably sit down and talk things out.

"After most barroom fights, you get up and dust each other off," he said. "We're still neighbors, still working together and still serving the public."

Efforts to reach Rep. Olson for comment on Monday were not successful.

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