Large freshman class joins Legislature

Posted: Sunday, January 19, 2003

Freshman orientation in the Alaska Legislature - a biennial event aimed at quickly educating new lawmakers - was a little crowded this year.

Seventeen of 60 legislators - or close to 30 percent - are new.

That doesn't count former Rep. Max Gruenberg, an Anchorage Democrat, who returns after last serving in 1993, or three House members who moved to the Senate.

This week the newcomers have been learning the ropes in orientation sessions conducted by veteran lawmakers and staff before the legislative session opens Tuesday. Topics ranged from parliamentary procedures to how to use the pocket PCs lawmakers are given.

Sen. John Cowdery, an Anchorage Republican, filled lawmakers in on the cafeteria reserved for lawmakers only.

"That's your escape from your wife, your husband, the lobbyists, the media," said Cowdery, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. "There's nobody allowed in the lounge except legislators and ex-legislators."

You can pay as you go, or get a bill at the end of each month, he said. And $20 a year will buy all the drinks you want from the soda fountain.

House and Senate pages will drive lawmakers to and from the airport and will help with some other tasks too, but don't push it, warned House Rules Committee Chairman Norm Rokeberg.

"They're not your personal slaves, by any means," said Rokeberg, an Anchorage Republican.

In a session on committees, Rep. Richard Foster shared some hard-learned lessons that went beyond the mechanics of running a meeting.

Always keep your word and be a team player, the Democrat from Nome warned. Otherwise, the team will not be there when you need it.

"Rest assured that you'll eventually need help on something," Foster said. "You've got to be really careful. This is a real walk on the wire, walk on the fence."

Some new lawmakers had a head start, coming from the ranks of the legions of legislative aides. Rep. Bill Stoltze, a Chugiak Republican, was an aide for 18 years, most recently on the staff of retired Senate President Rick Halford.

Just the same, Stoltze said he was attending most of the orientation sessions.

"I don't want to convey the idea that I know it all. I think that's the wrong signal to send," he said.

While some have never held elected office, others like freshmen Rep. Carl Gatto, a Palmer Republican, have served on school boards or other local government bodies.

Sen. Ralph Seekins, a Fairbanks Republican, has never held elective office, but he's been coming to the Capitol since the early 1980s to lobby on behalf of various groups he's been involved with, including the state Chamber of Commerce and a statewide car dealers association.

"I'm just sitting on a different side of the table," Seekins said. "I understand the process pretty well."

It's taking longer than usual for lawmakers to settle in this year because a job opened in the House leadership when Gov. Frank Murkowski tapped his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, to fill his U.S. Senate seat after he became governor.

A new majority leader, who will occupy a second-floor office, is expected to be picked as early as today. That could cause another shuffle of committee assignments and office space.

Newcomer Nancy Dahlstrom, an Eagle River Republican, was appointed to replace Lisa Murkowski and temporarily occupies her office. But since she'll have to move today, she can't order letterhead or unpack files.

Nameplates outside many offices have not been installed, adding to sense of disarray in hallways already filled with boxes. That prompted Gatto to take matters into his own hands.

He slapped a piece of duct tape on the wall outside his office, and wrote, "The Ghetto," on it above his and his staff's scribbled names.

A large freshman class isn't unexpected in the year after redistricting, which occurs after every 10-year census, said Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, who served in the Legislature from 1988 through 2002.

A new legislative map creates several districts with no sitting legislator, clearing the way for newcomers. And with some new lawmakers replacing veterans with institutional knowledge, it can take longer to get things done, Leman said.

"But those are OK difficulties," he said. "They usually have a lot of energy, new ideas and challenge the system."

And veterans like Foster promise to be generous with their guidance.

"Feel free to come and see me and I'll tell you how to vote," Foster said with a grin.

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