In a shocking vote the day after the start of the legislative session, Representative Cathy Tilton (R – Wasilla) was elected Speaker of the House, returning power to Republicans after six years of bipartisan control. But instead of the Republicans making a deal with one of their own and one independent – Representative Louise Stutes (R – Kodiak) and Representative Dan Ortiz (I – Ketchikan) – they cut them out and made a deal with two Democrats and two Independents, a group known as the Bush Caucus.
Since the vote, a 23-member majority has formed, but little has been said publicly or on the record of exactly how that happened. Through a series of conversations on background with multiple legislators, the Landmine has learned that the deal to form the majority came together the night before the vote when Representative Bryce Edgmon (I – Dillingham) cut a deal with Republicans, abandoning the group of Democrats and Independents he had been the de facto leader of since the November election.
After the November election, a group of 19 Democrats and Independents were elected to the State House. Twenty-one Republicans – the bare minimum for a majority – were also elected. But two of those Republicans, Wasilla Representative David Eastman and Kodiak Representative Louise Stutes, prevented an outright Republican majority from forming.
Eastman has long been a thorn in the side of Republicans and can’t be relied on to vote with the majority. Stutes served as Speake of the House the last two years in a bipartisan majority, and before that caucused with the bipartisan majority – which formed in 2017.
The group of 19 Democrats and Independents – which include 10 freshman – was effectively led by Edgmon, a former two-term Speaker of the House and the longest serving House member. Representative Zack Fields (D – Anchorage) was his deputy. The group’s mantra was “19 strong.” After the 2018 election, a bipartisan group of 19 stuck together and prevented Republicans from forming a majority. When the House finally organized nearly a month into the 2019 session, Edgmon was re-elected Speaker of the House.
Because neither group had the numbers to form a majority after the election, a stalemate ensued. This also happened after the 2018 and 2020 elections. In both of those cases a majority did not come together for several weeks into the legislative sessions following those elections. Both times, Republican votes eventually broke the deadlock and kept the bipartisan majority together.
But this year a majority came together on the second day of session when Cathy Tilton was elected Speaker of the House by a 26-14 vote. It came as a surprise to not only the public, but also to the group of Democrats and Independents who thought they were “19 strong.”
Around 10 pm on Tuesday night, the House Republican group met with Edgmon and members of the Bush Caucus at the Thomas Stewart Building adjacent to the Capitol. Negotiations had been ongoing since the election and a deal had finally come together. Representative Josiah Patkotak (I -Utqiagvik), a pro-resource development Alaska Native who represents the oil rich North Slope, was first elected in 2020. Patkotak, a key member of the Bush Caucus, was part of the last bipartisan majority but has always been friendly with Republicans.
Patkotak agreed to join with Republicans this time. Breaking with the Bush Caucus to join with Republicans was risky, but it forced the hand of the other Bush Caucus members. Counting Stutes and Ortiz, the Republican-led group had 22 votes for a majority with Patkotak. Stutes and Patkotak would have both been in leadership (Stutes likely re-elected Speaker of the House) and Ortiz would have been made a co-chair of the Finance Committee.
It was no secret that Stutes and Ortiz had been talking to both sides and was trying to put a majority together. But Stutes, along with the group of Democrats and Independents, were unaware of the late-night meeting at the Thomas Stewart Building, and still thought they were in a good place.
Edgmon was not going to let himself and the other members of the Bush Caucus be left out of the majority. Plus, there is some bad blood between him and Stutes. Edgmon wanted to be elected speaker for a third term in 2021, but Stutes was eventually elected when now-Senator Kelly Merrick (R – Eagle River) broke the 20-20 deadlock and voted for her.
The deal that came together late at the Stewart Building was simple – the 19 Republicans (not including Eastman or Stutes) would join with the four members of the Bush Caucus to form a 23-member majority. But Representative CJ McCormick (D – Bethel) was not at the meeting and was not told about the deal. It was determined that McCormick, a 25-year-old freshman representative, was too new and could not be trusted to not leak the deal to the other side.
The next morning McCormick voted against Tilton for speaker. After the vote, each side met in private. McCormick went to the meeting of Democrats and Independents. Multiple sources say he was visibly emotional and did not know what to do. He was told by members of the group it was up to him, and that it would be ok for him politically to join either caucus. McCormick was also reportedly on the phone with Congresswoman Mary Peltola (D – Alaska), who represented Bethel in the State House for ten years, asking for advice.
Meanwhile, the new majority of 19 Republicans were meeting with Patkotak, Edgmon, and Representative Neal Foster (D – Nome). During the meeting Representative Sarah Vance (R – Homer) told the three rural members, “The deal was four of you, not three.” At some point McCormick either decided on his own or was convinced he would be better off sticking with the Bush Caucus. When asked in the hallway of the Capitol if he thought he was in the minority when he voted against Tilton for speaker, and when he knew or decided he was in the majority, McCormick told the Landmine, “No comment. I don’t want to answer that.”
Before the vote for speaker, the group of Democrats and Independents were still not aware of the deal Edgmon, Patkotak, and Foster made with Republicans. During a break, several members were meeting on the sky bridge adjacent to the House Chambers. It was becoming clear some kind of deal had been made, but the details still eluded the Democrats and Independents. They only figured it out moments before the vote. In fact, Ortiz and Representative Andi Story (D – Juneau) both voted for Tilton. But they later learned they were not in the majority when Speaker Tilton told members of the media who comprised the new majority. When informed about the makeup of the majority after the vote, Ortiz told the Landmine, “That’s news to me.”
Edgmon and Foster, along with Representative DeLena Johnson (R – Palmer), were made co-chairs of the powerful House Finance Committee. Stutes was cut out, and now along with Eastman, is not part of either caucus. The remaining 15 Democrats and Independents now make up the House minority. Many Democrats and progressive Independents are furious with Edgmon and feel betrayed. While it is true for many years the Bush Caucus was part of past Republican majorities, it was typically when Republicans already had the numbers for a majority. The Bush Caucus members joined so they could look out for their districts. In this case, the deal they made gave power to the Republicans.
The new bad blood, combined with big votes on the amount of the dividend, bringing back a defined benefit pension, and increasing per student funding, will make the coming months interesting. The new 23-member majority is four votes shy of the two-thirds vote and seven votes shy of the three-quarters vote – both important procedural vote thresholds that will come up. They will need to rely on the minority for certain votes. And the majority itself already has internal factions within in. The next few months in Juneau are sure to be very loose!