Joe Nelson vies for Senate confirmation

Juneau Democrats say Kerttula is still their preferred choice

Posted: Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Seeking to represent Juneau in the Alaska Senate, Joe Nelson is now in the middle of what's become a battle of wills between Gov. Sarah Palin and Democrats in Juneau and the Senate.

"I'm going into this with my eyes as wide open as I can," Nelson said.

Nelson currently serves as admissions director at University of Alaska Southeast. He is awaiting confirmation for the Senate seat recently held by Democrat Kim Elton, now an official in the Obama administration.

While Palin has the power to appoint any Juneau Democrat to the position, her appointment must be confirmed by Democratic senators. Palin rejected Juneau Democratic leaders' nominee, Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, while Democratic senators rejected Palin's appointee, Tim Grussendorf.

Nelson, 38, an Alaska Native, is a member of the board of directors for Sealaska Corp., the Southeast regional Native corporation. Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, one of the senators who will have to confirm Nelson, serves as chairman of Sealaska.

After Senate Democrats rejected Grussendorf, Juneau Democrats presented the governor with a slate of three additional recommendations, along with Kerttula.

Nelson was not on that list, which included Assembly member Jeff Bush, former Juneau Mayor Sally Smith and former Juneau Rep. Mike Miller.

Democrats said Kerttula was still their preferred choice, but Palin has indicated she is looking for someone to appoint who is more conservative than Kerttula.

Kerttula has been a critic of the governor in the past. She called Palin "unqualified" for the position of vice president during the 2008 presidential election.

Nelson said his legislative interests would focus on jobs and the overall health of the Southeast economy. That includes improving access with projects such as the Juneau Road and addressing energy issues, he said.

"I'm open to development of the road for improved access," he said, "I don't in any way believe the road should be viewed as competing against the ferry system."

Nelson is a lawyer, but is now working in college admissions to recruit more students to higher education.

That's "the key to the long-term success of any community," he said, adding that higher education can include both vocational and university programs.

Nelson said he was not very familiar with some of the issues that have been the focus of the Legislature in past years, such as the oil tax reforms pushed through by Palin or efforts to ensure that a natural gas pipeline is built.

"A number of those issues, I do need to spend some time with our Juneau delegation, and I'm looking forward to doing that," he said.

One of the members of the delegation would be Kerttula, who declined comment on Nelson's appointment.

Nelson is married to Mary Nelson, a former representative from Bethel and longtime Kerttula ally.

It appears the vote to confirm Nelson will be held in secret. Senior Democratic senators on Tuesday declined to say when and how they would decide on Nelson's appointment, suggesting that it would not be conducted under the Alaska Open Meetings Law.

Palin had earlier demanded that Republicans be allowed to decide on the appointment, and that the vote be conducted in public, but then backed away from both of those positions in the face of Senate opposition.

Juneau Democratic Party Chairwoman Kim Metcalfe said local party leaders were still hoping to see someone they recommended win the appointment, as is tradition in Alaska.

"I've met Joe Nelson; he seems like a very nice young man but he's not our choice," she said.

Democrats had earlier questioned Grussendorf's commitment to the party. Metcalfe said they're not doing that with Nelson, but would still prefer the candidates they recommended.

"We have four candidates who have long records of service to Juneau. We're very much in favor of those candidates," she said.

Nelson said he's aware that the final decision may not come down to his qualifications at all, but may be about the battle between Palin and Democrats.

It may be that "the real decision points aren't going to be about me, but the party," he said.

Senate President Gary Stevens, who has been attempting to stay out of the battle over the empty Senate seat, said it might be a good idea to pass legislation to clarify the appointment process to prevent future disputes.

I think a vote on the floor, in which only those members of the party affected are allowed to vote, that's the way they should do the vote," Stevens said Tuesday.

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