GOP drops coalition, reclaims House majority

John Harris could replace Pete Kott as House speaker, if realignment holds

Posted: Tuesday, November 16, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Republican caucus leaders on Monday said they had reclaimed the House majority after a weekend of marathon phoning persuaded some lawmakers - who had defected to a bipartisan coalition - to return to the fold.

Rep. John Harris of Valdez, who was named House speaker earlier this month by the caucus, said the caucus has shored up commitments from at least 26 members and could have 28 by the end of the day.

Twenty-one representatives are needed to hold the majority in the 40-member House.

"The House Republican leadership is intact," Harris said.

On Saturday, about a half-dozen lawmakers announced a realignment that included all 13 House Democrats and about a dozen members of the GOP majority. The coalition members said with their majority, they planned to rise above partisan politics and reinstate Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, as speaker to replace Harris.

After a weekend of back-and-forth phone calls by both sides to targeted lawmakers, 10 House Republican leaders held a news conference in Anchorage on Monday during which they announced their resurgence and denounced what they called a power grab by House Democrats.

"They had a lot to gain by this and they really worked it hard," said Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage.

Harris said those who had left the caucus were lured by misinformation spread by coalition members. Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, said those lawmakers were "sucked into a situation they didn't understand."

"They were told almost to a person that a certain number of people were on board when they weren't, and that they would be left in the minority," Harris said.

Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, conceded the numbers had shifted back to the Republicans' favor. However, he disputed that any lawmakers had been misled in forming the coalition and said its creation was not a grab for power.

"It's a vision for the future that's not dead," Berkowitz said.

House Minority Whip Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said the Monday announcement declaring a Republican majority might not be the final word on the House organization.

"These things have a way of going up and down and up and down," she said.

She said the leadership battle might not be over until January, when lawmakers return to Juneau for the legislative session.

"We'll get through this," she said. "It sounded like a very good organization. It really was not into partisanship. I hope to carry that momentum no matter what happens."

Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, would have been made chairman of the House Judiciary Committee under the coalition, but will take a seat on the House Finance Committee under Republican control, a position he said he prefers. Unless committee assignments change, Weyhrauch will be the only Southeast lawmaker on Finance. Weyhrauch also is set to serve on the House Ways and Means Committee, on the Legislative Council and as ranking member of the Ethics Committee.

But like Kerttula, Weyhrauch said he was "not sure where things are going to fall out yet." He added, however, that the bipartisan coalition was never realistic.

"(The coalition) was always a work in progress," Weyhrauch said. "The numbers they had given indicated a large group in this coalition. Everybody started talking on Sunday and recognized it was illusory."

Harris said the commitments he received were firm, though declined to name them, except for Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, R-Eagle River. If the majority holds until the session begins on Jan. 10, Harris will be named speaker.

Changes in committee assignments and chairmanships from what the caucus announced Nov. 5 are possible, but not because of any promise made to lure back Republicans, he said.

Harris also pledged Republican caucus meetings would be as open as possible, but said some meetings dealing with specific issues such as personnel and strategy would have to remain closed.

State law allows caucuses to meet behind closed doors to discuss political strategy.

Harris said he considered his relationship of trust with Berkowitz, the minority leader, damaged because of what was viewed as an attempt to undermine the authority of the caucus.

"You, in my opinion, have blown that trust considerably," Harris said, addressing Berkowitz, who was not in attendance.

Berkowitz said there was no animus on his part, and the brief ascendancy of his coalition was strictly business.

Harris alluded to ongoing talks with three or four disgruntled House Democrats about joining their group, although he said no commitments have been made and he declined to name any of them.

Berkowitz said he didn't know any Democrat who fit that description, but that if Harris is trying to draw any away, "he ought not feel bad about the reactions of the last weekend if he's contemplated similar actions."

• Juneau Empire reporter Timothy Inklebarger contributed to this report.

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