The Democratic minority caucus in both the Alaska House of Representatives and the State Senate now controls just 25 percent of the seats in each chamber.
But House Democrats speaking on behalf of the minority caucus Tuesday morning, led by Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, insisted that despite their reduced numbers, the House minority remains “strong” and can still have a role in shaping what legislation passes out of the Legislature this year.
“We’ve had many of our ideas … come to fruition, and it’s been our hard work that’s helped Alaskans maintain their fair share, that’s stopped bad gas line ideas, that’s brought out the need for a strong education system,” Kerttula said. “We have an incredibly strong caucus, and it’s not always about the size.”
But in spite of Kerttula’s publicly projected optimism about the strength of her caucus, several Democrats caucus across the aisle, joining with Republicans in organizing the House.
One erstwhile Democrat, Rep. Lindsey Holmes of Anchorage, not only defected from the minority caucus to the majority last Saturday, but outright changed her party affiliation from Democratic to Republican.
Holmes said Tuesday that while she is “really sorry to have caused people confusion and anger” over not switching parties until after winning election last November as a Democrat in her competitive but Democratic-leaning West Anchorage district, she made the decision in the lead-up to the start of this legislative session out of personal conviction.
“I didn’t switch because I thought there was something I was particularly going to get,” said Holmes. “It was a lot of soul-searching over the last couple of weeks as I was prepping for session and thinking about where I was going to be focusing my efforts. … Now that I made the switch, I do think there are things that I can do for the state and the district in my new position that will be great. It was not my rationale for doing so. I didn’t say, ‘Ooh, I can have more power and do more things over here,’ and switch because of that.”
Holmes continued, “Being on the Finance Committee, being inside the room, all of these people I’ve been working with on these issues in the past, there’s now a new level of trust. I’m on the team, so I’m in the room. … There’s no questioning who I’m aligned with. And so I think my influence on these issues is going to be greater.”
The prospect of having greater influence as a member of the majority enticed Rep. Benjamin Nageak, D-Barrow, a former mayor of the North Slope Borough who was elected to the House last year.
“My personal thinking is I’m in a majority and that’s a good thing to be in,” Nageak said. With a spot in the majority, giving him the co-chairmanship of the Community and Regional Affairs Committee and a seat on the Energy Committee, among others, he remarked, “I’m going to give a lot to the process.”
Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, is now in his third term of caucusing with the majority, a decision he said he and a couple of other Democrats from rural districts reached jointly.
“We just took a look at it, figured there was an opportunity to help out our respective districts and of course the constituents that live there, and we made that decision,” said Herron.
“Obviously, when you’re in the majority … you have a chance, I guess, at passing legislation that benefits your district,” Herron said. “I mean, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get your legislation passed, but it’s an opportunity, and that’s what I liked about it.”
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said he and other members of the minority have found ways to work across the aisle, whether by joining with fellow Democrats who are in the majority caucus or by finding common ground with certain Republican legislators on some issues.
“We have a number of people who, even though they have jumped to the other side, share our values, and they will likely vote with us on a number of issues,” Gara said. “There are a number of Republicans who are moderate who we will work with to hopefully build a majority on many of these issues. And frankly, I have bills that are cosponsored with Republicans who I’m friends with who I don’t have a lot of agreement on everything with, but we can get those things done. So it’s not which side you’re on, it’s how hard you work and how good you are trying to thread the needle and find the sort of holes in the defense to run your way through.”
Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, agreed Tuesday afternoon that the minority can contribute.
“I think that the minority at times does bring some good ideas to the collective body," said Chenault. "Sometimes I think they don’t, either. And some of my ideas aren’t the best, either. You know, I think that as long as we allow the process to move forward and everyone is allowed to participate, then that’s what the process is about. It’s not who has the most or how many.”
The partisan atmosphere of campaign season does not necessarily carry over into the legislative session, Holmes asserted.
“Once you get into this building, a lot of the partisanship that you go through during the election cycle, a lot of the partisanship that people perceive with the polarization of the state, a lot of it fades away once we gavel in,” said Holmes. “And I’ve always worked with both Democrats and Republicans, whoever I thought was aligned with where I was trying to go, and that hasn’t changed at all.”
Like Nageak, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, is new to the Legislature this year. He is the only one of the four freshmen caucusing with the House minority who is not from Anchorage, but instead represents a largely rural district in which he had to court voters in outlying Southeast Alaska communities in order to win election.
Kreiss-Tomkins said his views on oil tax reform, which formed a central part of his campaign message, distance him from the majority.
“I felt I needed to honor that,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
But the new state representative is still finding ways to work with members of the majority caucus. He has signed on as a sponsor to two bills introduced by Republicans, including one put forward by Reps. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, and Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, that would create a pilot program allowing one school district to adopt a four-day school week on a trial basis.
“I want to build relationships,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. “The goal is to make the world, Alaska, Southeast Alaska a better place, and I want to be effective in introducing legislation, and I think relationships are really important to that. And I’m still developing those.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.