Legislator is shunned by her party

Republican Rep. Dahlstrom still looks forward to politics as usual

Posted: Monday, June 13, 2005

Once again, an Alaska lawmaker finds herself orphaned from the majority caucus for not voting along party lines.

Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, R-Eagle River, says she can still be effective as a "caucus of one." But some observers say being a free spirit in the Alaska Legislature means ceding power for one's district.

Expulsion is the fate for Republican lawmakers who vote against the public works budget - one of the two obligations they must keep for the privilege of being in the ruling class. The caucus is also unyielding on procedural issues, which often involve moving legislation on the floor to final votes.

"The problem we have now is, 'Can we trust her,'" said House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez.

Since Republicans voted to kick her out of the caucus last weekend, Dahlstrom has not complained about the decision. She says if she had the choice, she would do it again.

"I knew the consequences," she said. "But my promise to my constituents had to come before that."

Dahlstrom made a 2004 campaign promise not to spend any money from the Alaska Permanent Fund. Next year's capital budget will use about $60 million from earnings of an account invested in the permanent fund, known as Amerada Hess. The budget passed the House with a vote of 30-8.

Before voting, Dahlstrom conducted her own poll that showed 80 percent of her constituents did not want any money spent from the permanent fund, she said.

Dahlstrom said she will lose her chair position on the House Economic Development, International Trade and Tourism Committee and possibly committee seats as well as a staff member. She will have two staffers during the legislative session and one in the interim.

Former Rep. Al Vezey, a North Pole Republican, was also booted out of the caucus in 1997 for voting against the capital budget.

Other Republicans, such as Rep. Bob Lynn of Anchorage, have lost committee placements for not voting along on procedural issues.

A Juneau political scientist said legislators who have been in this position before find themselves tangled in irony: They respect their constituents' expectations, but in doing so, they lose power needed to help the district.

"In Alaska, the party doesn't matter, but the caucus does," said Clive Thomas, political science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Dahlstrom said she will remain a Republican, but work with Democrats if necessary to pass bills she sponsors.

"We don't always agree with her, but her word is good," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

Berkowitz said Dahlstrom could be a major player next year if she is free to vote her conscience on many issues. She would be a tie-breaking vote in the House on legislation that requires a two-thirds vote, he said.

"In some ways she is liberated completely from some of the craziness that goes on in the Republican caucus," Berkowitz said.

Harris said the Democrats also have a history of tightening their grip on their members.

Berkowitz said that was true in the past, but if Democrats or a coalition is in the majority again, then they may decide to reform the process, such as splitting the capital budget into two bills.

According to Thomas' research, Alaska politics has a long history of legislative compromise.

"It's not like a regular job," he said. "When a representative has a bill they have to find 20 other people to support them." And that's when the deals begin.

Dahlstrom said that during closed meetings before the budget vote, she was not the only Republican objecting to spending money from the permanent fund.

"Several people said, 'No way am I voting for that,'" she said. Her colleagues changed their minds after deciding they could explain to their constituents reasons for their actions.

House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said the Amerada Hess fund does not contribute to earnings for personal dividends, but is a separate account set aside for capital projects.

Dahlstrom said legislators could have used money from the general fund or the Constitutional Budget Reserve instead.

Coghill also said the Republican Party may back another candidate for Dahlstrom's district in next year's election. The party's goal is to find candidates who fit the philosophy of the party, he said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.

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