ANCHORAGE - Rep. Pete Kott of Eagle River and Rep. Lisa Murkowski of Anchorage are battling to be the top lawmaker in the state House of Representatives.
One legislator taking sides in the fight to be House speaker said the contest is being influenced by Veco, an Anchorage construction company heavily involved in Alaska politics. Corporate officials said while they're contributing to campaigns, they are not involved in the leadership battle.
Kott and Murkowski, both Republicans, are seeking the speaker's post more than a month before the Aug. 27 primary and more than three months before the Nov. 5 general election. Kott faces no opposition and Murkowski faces a lesser-known primary challenger, Nancy Dahlstrom of Eagle River.
Some lawmakers said it is too early to organize the House or predict its balance, given recent changes in election districts.
"We don't even know who is going to win (the primaries) or even what the House is going to look like," Rep. Gary Stevens of Kodiak told the Anchorage Daily News.
Stevens said he has talked with Kott and Murkowski about the speaker's post but has not committed to either.
"This is all premature," he said.
Republicans have dominated the House for years and held 27 of 40 seats during the most recent session. The House has operated under the leadership of Rep. Brian Porter of Anchorage, who is not running for re-election.
First elected in 1992, Kott is one of the longest-serving Republican representatives. He lost a bid for speaker to Porter in 1998, but became chairman of the House Rules Committee, a powerful panel that chooses the bills that go to the chamber's floor.
Murkowski was elected in 1998 and quickly emerged as a leader with a voice more moderate than many of her Republican colleagues. Earlier this year, she led a successful drive for a hike in alcohol taxes. Also, she helped build bridges with Democrats to seek a solution to Alaska's $1 billion budget gap.
The Kott-Murkowski contest reflects the split in the House Republican majority last year.
Kott allied himself with the conservative leadership of Porter and House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, who decided not to run for re-election. Murkowski, who Mulder would have faced had he run for re-election, was part of a more moderate group known as the Fiscal Policy Caucus, which called for new revenue sources .
Murkowski has the support of fiscal allies such as Rep. Jim Whitaker of Fairbanks. Kott has backing from conservatives such as Reps. Vic Kohring of Wasilla and Kevin Meyer of Anchorage.
Meyer committed to Kott because he has more seniority in the House. Also, Murkowski's father, U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, is running for governor. Meyer said he worries about appearances if both won.
"That would look weird, that Murkowskis are running the whole state," Meyer said.
Lisa Murkowski said blood ties to the executive branch would not be a problem.
"I've made it clear that if I were speaker, my allegiance would have to lie with the caucus," she said.
Whitaker charges Kott is flexing his power as a fund-raiser and his close ties with Anchorage construction giant Veco Corp. to pressure people to support him.
"What's happening is that if people will commit to Kott for speaker, there will be a significant fund-raising effort on their behalf," Whitaker said. Whitaker said he knows of four cases in which such a choice has been offered candidates. He declined to name those candidates.
Murkowski said she also believes Veco is backing Kott for speaker.
Veco gives thousands of dollars to mostly Republican politicians. In the Legislature, Kott is one of Veco's closest allies, championing legislation that would have guaranteed the company a contract to build new private prisons.
This summer, Kott is actively fund-raising with Veco for many House Republican candidates, including Stevens, Meyer and Rep. Drew Scalzi of Homer. All said there is no link between the fund raising and support for Kott.
Kott and Veco Vice President Rick Smith deny there is any coordination between their fund raising and Kott's desire for the speaker's chair.
"At no time have I implied that any fund raising would be tied to their support for me as speaker," Kott said.
Smith said political contributions to Republican House candidates by him or other executives, such as Veco President Pete Leathard or Veco Chairman Bill Allen, are not coordinated and are unrelated to Kott's ambition to be speaker.
"I think Kott would be a great speaker, but I have no role in making that happen," Smith said.