Shakeup at the Capitol

Seven legislative leaders will step down after this session, reshaping the power base

Posted: Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Whenever lawmakers gavel out for good this year, at least 94 years of legislating will leave the House and Senate.

So far, Sens. Al Adams of Kotzebue, Jerry Mackie of Craig, Mike Miller of North Pole and Sean Parnell of Anchorage have announced their intention to step down. In the House, Reps. Gary Davis of Soldotna, Ben Grussendorf of Sitka and Gail Phillips of Homer have said they'd be leaving. Others may also announce.

Five of those leaving are members of the Republican-led majority, but the two Democrats have the longest legislature tenure. Grussendorf and Adams have both logged 20 years at the Capitol.

All seven have spent time running the House or Senate as presiding officers, sitting on budget-writing committees or working behind the scenes as power brokers.

``We have a lot of seniority,'' Phillips said of the departing group. ``But you can have a lot of seniority and it won't mean much. But this group that's leaving has leadership seniority.''

She thinks it'll take some time for the Legislature to reshuffle next year due to the departure of so many leaders.


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Parnell said it won't take long to nullify any adverse impact of the pending turnover. No sooner will one leader leave than another will take his or her place, he said.

``We're replaceable,'' Parnell said. ``The system has worked and will continue to work without us.''

Adams agreed.

``This Legislature does have quite a bit of experience and leadership going out, but there's leadership right behind us,'' Adams said. ``I never worry about it.''

Parnell spent eight years in the Legislature, including the past two years co-chairing the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee. Phillips spent a a decade as a member of the House, including time as House speaker.

Grussendorf, who also led the House, said it's time to give the new faces a chance.

``I would rather go out at the top of my game and have people say: `I wish he'd stay,''' he said.

Some of those leaving intend to run for a statewide office. However, it's a bit early for specific announcements. Phillips is rumored to be thinking of a higher office, as are Miller and Mackie.

A typical response to a question about their future comes from Phillips.

``I certainly don't intend this to be the end of my political career,'' she said.

Phillips, who announced her plans several weeks ago, waited until well into the session.

``I didn't want to be perceived as a lame-duck legislator,'' she said. ``I think I mitigated that.''

Mackie and Parnell, both in their 30s, talked about their young families when they announced retirement plans. Both aren't sure for what office, on what ballot, they may appear again.

``I think about it all the time, about what I want to do, but I truly don't know,'' said Mackie of Craig, who has mentioned gubernatorial ambitions in the past.

He did say he's a bit sad to see the group all leave at the same time. The one thing all the departing lawmakers seem to have in common is they represented the political middle ground at the Capitol.

``These are people who care about the entire state - urban, rural, whatever,'' Mackie said. ``They know how to treat people right.''

Davis, of Soldotna, said he thought giving up the House would make his last session more relaxing. It didn't.

``It's created a new twist to the stress level,'' he said. ``You'd think you'd have less stress, but there are still issues you care about and you work as best you can.''

Miller, of North Pole, said there's a good and bad side to the coming turnover. Some tried and failed ideas will likely come up and take up time because nobody remembers why they didn't work. At same time, shorter memories sometimes bring new ideas.

``I'd hate to say you have tired blood, but you get enthused blood that comes in,'' Miller said.

He also said the loss of history gives, to a degree, an advantage to the administration of Gov. Tony Knowles. The Democrat's commissioners have many middle managers who have acquired knowledge few legislators can come close to matching. What the Legislature forgets, the administration will likely remember, Miller said.

Knowles said the loss of so many lawmakers with experience and moderating leadership is unprecedented. Never, he said, have so many consensus-builders left the Capitol at the same time.

But he can relate.

``It's not hard to understand why they would want to do something else,'' Knowles said. ``The life of a legislator is far from glamorous or well-compensated.''

And more legislators will probably be leaving than the seven who've announced so far, Miller said. ``I think you're going to see more before it's all said and done,'' he said.

Sen. Tim Kelly, an Anchorage Republican, hasn't decided whether he'll run for re-election yet. Former Anchorage GOP Rep. Terry Martin has said he'll make a try for Kelly's seat.

Kelly said he's pretty sure there will be quite a shake-up in the Legislature in 2001. Faces will change, and so may the political balance, which is now dominated by the GOP.

``It's clear there will be a sweeping change in the Legislature,'' Kelly said. The Democrats may lose more experience, but the Republicans may lose more seats, he said. Kelly said the GOP has enjoyed quite a run for the last few years.

``We've overridden more vetoes in the last three years than in the 22 years I've been in the Legislature,'' Kelly said.

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