Sen. Kim Elton resigns for Interior post

Colleagues, congressional delegation praise choice; Gov. Palin takes a jab

Posted: Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Sen. Kim Elton, who has represented Juneau in the Senate, House and Assembly for nearly two decades, has accepted a position in the administration of President Barack Obama. The 60-year-old legislator will now be dealing with Alaska issues in the Department of Interior.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Elton announced his resignation on the Senate Floor Monday morning, and then left the floor and the building. His resignation, he said, was effective the same day.

Elton will be based in Washington, D. C. as Director of Alaska Affairs for Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Department of Interior.

His appointment was praised in the Legislature and welcomed by members of Alaska's congressional delegation, but Gov. Sarah Palin took another jab at Elton, who she had earlier attacked during her vice-presidential campaign.

"Senator Elton pledged his allegiance to President Obama last summer," Palin said Monday in a prepared statement.

Elton, a prominent Obama supporter in Juneau, was named chairman of a committee that investigated Palin's firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan last summer. That position was later engulfed in controversy after Palin was nominated to be Sen. John McCain's running mate in the presidential election. Palin then abandoned her pledge to cooperate with the investigation and many Republican lawmakers argued partisan politics were at work.

Elton said Monday he was called by the White House in early January, seeing if he was interested in a job with the Obama administration.

Elton said he told them he might be interested, but "It had to be Alaska-connected."

Then in mid-January, Secretary-designee Salazar called him and said "we want you to come to Washington and work for my office."

The vetting process was "torturous," but Elton said the job was offered and he accepted Friday. He's already discussed it with U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, and U.S. Rep. Don Young. He notified Palin's staff as well.

While in the nation's capital for the Obama inauguration, a trip Elton said he'd scheduled much earlier, he met with top Interior officials.

"I felt very good about the leadership team that I've met, what they described as their vision, not just in stewardship but in economic progress," he said.

A former Juneau Empire editor, Elton also worked for newspapers in Fairbanks and Anchorage before returning to his hometown. Elton is a Vietnam veteran, served as executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and other government positions before becoming a legislator.

Palin will now have to appoint another Democrat to representative Juneau in the Alaska Senate. Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, is considered to be a likely candidate.

Elton was praised Monday by other senators, including Republican members of the Senate's bipartisan coalition who were formerly rivals, but also by Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, who is seeking his seat.

"He's been a real mentor for me," she said. "It is bittersweet, I'm so proud of Kim but it's going to be hard on Rep. (Cathy) Munoz and myself, losing our senator," she said.

There will be no changes made to Elton's staff until a new senator from Juneau is appointed.

"Senate leadership has agreed to keep the staff intact until a new senator has been put in places, at which point it will be up to the new senator, said Tim Barry, spokesman for Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

Barry said that means Elton's office will continue to handle constituent issues and follow bills in the interim.

"Concerns of the electorate don't go away just because there's a brief gap in the representation," he said.

The large bipartisan coalition running the Senate means that Elton's resignation is unlikely to affect the leadership structure, currently split evenly between 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans. All 10 Democrats and six of the Republicans are members of the Senate Working Group headed by Stevens.

Elton spent most of his legislative career in Democratic minorities, but when the coalition organized it won a seat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He is known for being a staunch advocate for keeping the capital, and state jobs, in Juneau.

His first committee chairmanship after years in the Legislature was an appointment as chairman of the Legislative Council, which serves as the Legislature's operating arm.

At the same July meeting where Elton was named chairman, the committee voted unanimously to investigate Palin's firing of Monegan.

Elton's new position will be to coordinate the Department of Interior's interaction with Alaska, and has the opportunity to impacts Alaska on several levels. The department includes the Minerals Management Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service and other agencies.

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