Valentine’s Day ended up being a special day for the Alaska House of Representatives. After breaking the record for the longest time without an organization, the House finally organized and re-elected Bryce Edgmon (I – Dillingham) Speaker of the House. The previous record was set in 1981, when it took 22 days to organize.
Edgmon served as Speaker for the previous legislature, composed of a bi-partisan majority coalition of mostly Democrats, three Republicans, and two Independents. The new bi-partisan coalition has more Republicans who hold leadership positions.
Edgmon changed his party registration from Democrat to Undeclared on February 11. Rumors of a deal with four Republicans joining the group of 19 (16 Democrats, two Republicans, and one Independent) were swirling over the weekend, but it did not end up happening during a floor session on Tuesday. Representative Gary Knopp (R – Kenai) surprised many by voting against Representative Dave Talerico (R – Healy) when many thought he was going to. This Landmine story explains that.
Anger and frustration were running high on Wednesday. On Wednesday morning, Representatives David Eastman (R – Wasilla), Sarah Vance (R – Homer), Ben Carpenter (R – Nikiski), and Bart LeBon (R – Fairbanks) held a bizarre press conference where they announced they were going to introduce a bill that would suspend the rules and allow the House to do business even though they are not organized. One problem there, it takes a two thirds vote of both bodies to suspend the rules. LeBon looked very uncomfortable. He did not say one word. House Republicans then held another fake floor session and criticized Democrats for not showing up.
Later in the day, several freshman legislators, led by Representative Josh Revak (R – Anchorage) held a press conference announcing they would be working from their desks on the floor until the House organized. It appeared to be the beginning of a sit in. It seemed things were about to get very loose.
However, later Wednesday evening it started to sound like a deal had been made. The House held a floor session on Thursday morning. Of course, things started off a bit rough. Knopp was not present and was not excused. He had left to go to some meetings on the Kenai Peninsula. Representative Chris Tuck (D – Anchorage) moved and asked that Knopp be excused. There was an objection by Eastman. Then, Eastman and Carpenter spoke about Knopp not being there for the upcoming vote on a Speaker. After a strange 21-18 vote, Knopp was shown as excused. These kind of votes are almost always unanimous.
Tuck then nominated Edgmon for Speaker of the House. Representative DeLena Johnson (R – Palmer) surprisingly nominated Representative Dave Talerico. Then debate started. Johnson oddly spoke in favor of Talerico while the motion on the floor was for Edgmon. After a brief at ease, she withdrew her motion. Eastman spoke in opposition to Edgmon, who he happened to be sitting right next to. Representative Chuck Kopp (R – Anchorage) stood up and spoke of the ongoing gridlock. He reflected on how much he was to blame for it. He then announced he would be voting for Edgmon.
Representative Laddie Shaw (R – Anchorage), a former Navy Seal, then stood up, visibly emotional, and read the Navy Seal Creed. He ended by saying, “I speak these words from the Navy Seal Creed in hopes that we can bond. And that we will move forward with integrity and honor.” He received applause from his colleagues.
Representative Jennifer Johnston (R – Anchorage) then stood up to speak. She spoke about her long friendship with Talerico. She then said, “This day has come where I’m going to have to make a very hard decision. And I want to quote the late Ted Stevens, and I’m gonna say to hell with politics, I’m just gonna do what’s right for Alaska.” She then spoke about how important it is to organize the House and make it functional. She also said it’s important to pass a balanced budget. She ended by saying, “I will be pushing the ‘yes’ button for our colleague from Dillingham so we can move forward.”
The vote then took place. Edgmon was elected by a one vote margin, 21-18 with Knopp showing as excused. Representative Neal Foster (D – Nome), announced that Edgmon was elected Speaker of the House. Only about half of the representatives clapped. Edgmon then spoke about the frustrations over the last month but said he feels the House can make up for lost time, get to work, and pass a fiscally sustainable budget.
After the House adjourned, Edgmon spoke with reporters in the hallway. He said that Kopp would serve as the Majority Leader, Representative Steve Thompson (R – Fairbanks) would serve as Rules Chair, and Representatives Tammie Wilson (R – North Pole) and Foster would serve as Co-Chairs of the powerful Finance Committee. The next day, Kopp and Thompson switched roles. Kopp said they mutually decided to switch because they were both better suited for those roles.
The next day, Representatives Lance Pruitt (R – Anchorage), Cathy Tilton (R – Wasilla), and DeLena Johnson held a press conference. They announced they had a 15 member Republican Minority and that Pruitt would serve as Minority Leader.
As of this writing, committee chairs have not yet been announced. This is likely because the Majority is giving Minority members the weekend to decide if they want to join the Majority. It was announced that LeBon will be a member of the Majority. There is speculation that other Republicans may be going over. One of them is Representative Kelly Merrick (R – Eagle River) but she told me, “I have remained with the Republican caucus since November 8th, when we originally organized, and will continue to do so.” Committee chairs and assignments should be announced on Monday.
The Republican Minority met with Governor Dunleavy’s Chief of Staff, Tuckerman Babcock, on Thursday after Edgmon was elected Speaker. Babcock reportedly told them that the Republicans who stay in the Minority will have weekly meetings with Dunleavy and be kept in the loop on what the administration is working on. A likely concern from Dunleavy and Babcock is the veto override of budget items, which requires a three quarter vote (45 members) of a joint session.