Speaker Kott thrives on the art of the deal

Purveyor of 'deep thoughts' says he does it to break the tension

Posted: Monday, April 19, 2004

Speaker of the House Pete Kott cleared his throat. The other 39 state representatives paid attention.

"If dogs take over the world and choose a king, let's hope they don't do it by size," he drawled from his desk overlooking the House floor. "Because even Chihuahuas have good ideas."

Kott offers up such offbeat philosophical musings at the end of each floor session. Public television's "Alaska Week" has dubbed these "Deep Thoughts with Pete Kott," a spoof on a popular "Saturday Night Live" feature.

Kott said he comes up with his "deep thoughts" to break the tension. They reflect his laid-back personal style.

He dresses most often in cowboy boots and a bolo tie, with a black suit that could've been handed down by Johnny Cash. An unopened box of Don Diego Dominican cigars and a Bible share space on the desk in his Capitol office.

Behind that folksy style stands a sharp politician.

The 54-year-old Republican from Eagle River has gone from a General Motors assembly line in Flint, Mich., to lead the Alaska House.

He's weathered public criticism from foes who called him too cozy with special interests. He's won the respect of lawmakers in both parties, including some opponents, for fair treatment. He has brought opposing factions together since being chosen by his fellow Republicans to be speaker last year.

Kott, in a tradition as old as politics, likes to make a deal.

Jim Whitaker, who left the House in the fall after being elected mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, is a Kott convert. Whitaker, a fellow Republican, fought hard against Kott's bid to be speaker. But Kott didn't hold a grudge, he said, and turned out to be good at the job.

"As speaker, I found him to be evenhanded and fair," Whitaker said. "And willing to deal with large and potentially controversial issues."

Former Anchorage Republican Rep. Andrew Halcro, who left the Legislature before Kott became the House speaker, is not so charitable. "Controlled by special interests," is how Halcro described him.

"Not any more than the average (Republican) majority member," quipped Anchorage Democratic Rep. Eric Croft.

Kott grew into the speaker's job, Croft said.

Croft helped negotiate with Kott last month on a school funding bill that may become one of the Legislature's most notable accomplishments this year. Both parties had been sniping about what to do about a growing funding crisis in schools throughout the state. Under Kott's leadership, the House dropped the rhetoric and struck a deal to provide $84.5 million more for schools next year.

The agreement required Democrats to sacrifice their biggest bargaining chip, the three-quarters vote needed to balance the budget, in return for $10 million in public projects. Kott mended fences when it looked like the deal was in danger of falling apart, Croft said.

Senate Republicans say Kott gave up too much to the Democrats. Compared to the House, the Senate is bogged down in partisan rancor.

Democrats, who control 12 of the 40 seats in the state House, often praise Kott for reaching across the aisle. Democrats trust him to stick to the bipartisan deals he brokers, without pulling tricks.

"He's a very bright guy who is very experienced in the Legislature," Croft said. "But he gives off this less intense, or more happy-go-lucky, impression. So it takes a while to figure it out."

Kott is a blue-collar lawmaker. He runs a hardwood flooring business. His wife, Lichine, works in the accounting department at Wal-Mart.

This may be his last term. He's given up his prime earning years to be a legislator for the past 12 years. And, Kott said, as he gets older the hardwood flooring is getting tougher on the knees. He'd like to find work in government.

"And eventually I think I would like to lobby, that would be kind of the goal," he said.

It's not uncommon for prominent lawmakers to parlay their legislative knowledge into well-paid lobbying jobs. What's rare is a legislator with the candor to talk about it.

Kott went to work for GM right after high school in the late 1960s.

"Back then it was everybody's goal out of high school, or just about everybody's goal, to work for General Motors," Kott said.

As it turned out, the assembly line was hot, exhausting work, with little chance for upward mobility. So Kott scrapped thoughts of a car-making career and joined the Air Force. He worked his way up, retiring as a captain in 1991.

While in the service he earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's in public administration from Florida International University in Miami.

In 1984 the Air Force sent Kott to Elmendorf Air Force Base. He started teaching political science courses as an adjunct at Texas-based Wayland Baptist University, which has an extension in Anchorage to serve airmen.

In 1992, an Eagle River state House seat came open. Kott said some of his former students coaxed him into running. He took a page straight out of the political science textbook for his campaign guide.

"The whole issue is becoming visible. You want to be a household name," Kott said. "So we put a lot of emphasis on yard signs. It was a sea of red."

He won handily. Media reports at the time described Kott as a "staunch Christian conservative." And, earlier in his legislative career, he introduced a bill requiring divorcing parents to take classes before splitting up.

But he's considered a political moderate now and says he never really was the right-wing ideologue some thought.

Kott said people at the Capitol didn't think of him as a regular guy until a newspaper columnist reported in 1993 that "Pete Kott, R-God," was spotted in the Alaskan Bar in Juneau, relaxing with a fat cigar.

It was far from the last time Kott would be spotted in one of the Juneau bars popular with legislators, lobbyists and Capitol staffers.

But since he became the speaker, Kott said, "I don't really do that anymore - and of course the position dictates you really can't do that - you can't be running wild in the streets at night.

"I still go out and have a couple drinks, but you know I've got a little dog at home now I've got to take care of too, so that kind of sends me in that direction earlier in the evening than in the past."

Kott said after the legislative day is done, he often just goes back to his Juneau apartment.

"Mostly, I just go back and get on the Internet and do a little surfing on eBay and see what I can pick up as far as a good little deal on a pair of cowboy boots or a belt buckle, you know, just messin'," he said.

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