State House factions enter into coalition

Pact sweeps away earlier GOP vote to organize, reinstalls Kott

Posted: Monday, November 15, 2004

House Democrats have teamed up with Republican colleagues to form a new Republican-led majority coalition.

The partnership nullifies the GOP's organizational vote taken Nov. 5 and reinstalls Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, as speaker, legislative leaders said.

The realignment includes all 13 House Democrats of the 40-member body and about a dozen members of the GOP majority, said Ethan Berkowitz, the Anchorage Democrat who until the latest developments had been minority leader.

The new Senate leadership was unaffected by Saturday's developments.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said the new House coalition formed because Democrats had a good rapport with Kott last session.

"Ethan (Berkowitz) and I in particular felt very comfortable in talking to him," she said, citing an agreement by House Democrats and Republicans to decide early in the session on the state's contribution to education funding.

"We had a level of trust, and Pete (Kott) really did listen to the Democratic side. He didn't just listen and do whatever he wanted to," she said.

The new coalition includes House members who are willing to set aside partisanship, Kerttula said. And having both of Juneau's House members in the majority can only help Juneau save the capital and grow its economy, she said.

Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, will chair the Judiciary Committee.

The new coalition's eventual makeup is still fluid, and other Republicans who were out of state traveling were expected to get on board, said Rep. Mike Hawker, the Anchorage Republican who is to be the budgetary co-chair of the Finance Committee.

The new development strips power from Rep. John Harris of Valdez, who had been the GOP pick for speaker, and Rep. John Coghill of North Pole, who had been selected majority leader.

Coghill said he had no intention of joining the new majority.

"My guess is it's more about leadership style than philosophy," Coghill said. "I'm very disappointed. To me, it is an affront to the Republican voters, who expected they would send down majority Republicans."

Harris could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Kott, Berkowitz, Hawker and a half-dozen other lawmakers of both parties who joined the coalition gathered Saturday in Kott's offices in the Legislative Information Office building on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage to make the announcement.

"This is not something that occurred overnight," Kott said. "There were small circles of people talking, and it started to blossom from small circles into larger circles."

But things came to a head in the last few days, said Berkowitz.

"We wanted to keep Pete Kott as speaker," he said.

Kott has worked across party lines, and the two sides have made progress on important issues during his tenure, Berkowitz said. And then came the GOP majority's Nov. 5 decision, in which Kott lost to Harris by a "narrow margin," according to Berkowitz.

Coghill disputed the notion that the previous majority did not cooperate with Democrats.

"When it came time to work together, we worked together," he said.

The House members who had gathered in Kott's offices included Republican Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom of Eagle River, who will be majority leader in the new arrangement. "History is being made right now, with both sides coming together," she said.

Similar realignments have occurred before in the Alaska Legislature, and previously chosen speakers of the House have found themselves out of that job.

On the level of specific assignments, House Democrats have gained a chairmanship of only one House committee. Reggie Joule of Kotzebue will be the co-chair of Finance for the capital budget. Kerttula said she wasn't certain what her assignments will be.

Hawker and Joule replace Anchorage Republican Rep. Kevin Meyer and Kenai Republican Rep. Mike Chenault, who had been named Finance co-chairmen earlier.

The Republicans, however, still will hold most of the stronger positions in the House. Kott and others said Rep. Lesil McGuire would now be Rules Committee chairwoman. Anchorage Republican Rep. Norm Rokeberg had been named Rules chairman in the previous lineup.

"I'm hoping people will work with us rather than trying to tear us apart," Kerttula said. "I know there will be terrible pressure to see us not succeed."

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