Nelson seeks Democratic support in Senate

Posted: Thursday, April 09, 2009

Juneau Senate appointee Joe Nelson worked the halls in the Capitol Wednesday, seeking to win confirmation to Juneau's sole seat in the Alaska Senate.

It is not clear when a vote among the Senate's nine Democrats may happen, but some involved in the process said it could be within the next day or two.

Nelson is talking up his qualifications and his status as a Democrat, but said that may not be enough.

"The unfortunate partisan circumstances are really the bigger issue," he said.

Gov. Sarah Palin appointed Nelson after Senate Democrats rejected her first appointment, conservative Democrat Tim Grussendorf, who did not have the backing of the Juneau Democratic Party. Palin earlier rejected the party's preferred candidate, Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

Senior Democratic Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, declined comment Wednesday. That may be an indication the confirmation vote will be done in a secret meeting, despite state law saying such decisions are to be made in public, such as when they rejected Grussendorf.

Nelson said "overall, it's been positive," of his meetings so far with Senate Democrats.

Some senators, such as Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, have said publicly they believe the governor's appointee should get approval if they are qualified.

Wednesday, Sen. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, said he did not go as far as automatic approval, and did not yet know how he was going to vote.

"I haven't made up my mind yet, I still have some other questions," he said.

Juneau's Senate seat became vacant when former Sen. Kim Elton resigned to take a position in the Obama administration dealing with Alaska issues.

For a replacement for Elton, Thomas said he'd "like to know whether they line up philosophically, more or less, with Kim, or if they're diametrically opposed to his stand on state issues, such as the Juneau road," he said.

Elton was skeptical of the Juneau Access Project, a road connection between Juneau and a shuttle ferry at Katzehin, closer to Haines and Skagway. Nelson has said he may favor the road.

After both Kerttula and Grussendorf were rejected, Juneau Democratic leaders submitted a list of other possible applicants that did not include Nelson.

Thomas said the views of the local party should be "taken into consideration."

Nelson said he's trying to fend off concerns similar to those that dogged Grussendorf that he's not really a Democrat, though he's been registered as a Democrat for years.

"There seems to be some grasping at straws to find some associations of me and the Republican party," he said. "I'm sure every Democrat knows a Republican."

Nelson described himself as "pretty mainstream."

"I'm probably a little bit closer to the middle than the Juneau Democratic leaders at the moment," he said.

Party leaders in Juneau are currently recommending Kerttula, Assembly member Jeff Bush, former Mayor Sally Smith, and former legislator Mike Miller, for the position. It has been vacant since early March while Palin has tried to get someone favorable to her in one of the state's most liberal Senate districts.

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