JUNEAU — The incoming speaker of the Alaska House, known as a level-headed moderate willing to work across party lines, faces major tests in leading a new majority coalition and trying to secure agreement on a plan to address the state’s multibillion-dollar deficit.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon acknowledges moments of trepidation about his new role.
“But I’m also somebody who rises to the challenge,” the Democrat said.
Edgmon’s ascendance to House speaker comes 10 years into a political career that started with Edgmon winning a primary contest with a coin toss against his former boss and has seen Edgmon become a strong advocate for rural Alaska issues.
When he takes over as speaker in January, Edgmon will be thrust into a spotlight he has long shied away from. He will lead a House coalition comprised largely of Democrats who through an organizational shake-up following the November elections are regaining power after years in the minority.
The coalition, which also includes independents and three Republicans on the outs with their party leaders for joining, formed around wanting to fix the state’s fiscal problem after this year’s legislative sessions were snarled by gridlock.
Edgmon and Democratic Rep. Neal Foster of Nome, who is also part of the new coalition, were part of the Republican-led majority for years. Rural lawmakers commonly are part of the majority caucus in Alaska, regardless of who’s in charge.
In weighing the pieces of a fiscal plan pushed by Gov. Bill Walker this year, it wasn’t just Republicans who struggled on a path forward, said Rep. Mike Chenault, who has served as speaker since 2009 and will be a leader in the new Republican minority caucus.
“As I told people, you couldn’t get 21 votes for any of those measures,” Chenault said.
Twenty-one votes are needed to pass bills in the 40-member House, and some procedural issues require more. Edgmon’s coalition will have 22 members.
There will be issues he won’t be able to take up because of his slim majority, Chenault said. Edgmon’s ability to be fair and even-keeled will be important as speaker, Chenault said.
Edgmon, who admired Chenault’s approach and steadiness as speaker, said his coalition is small but strong.
Republicans still control the Senate, which wants further budget cuts and is willing to work with Edgmon “whenever possible,” incoming Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said.
Edgmon, 55, grew up in the southwest Alaska fishing community of Dillingham, where he still lives. His political worldview was shaped while working as a legislative staffer years ago, when he saw rural lawmakers, many of whom were Democrats, focused less on party labels and more on getting things done, he said.
In 2006, as the debate over the proposed Pebble Mine burbled in his district, Edgmon, who opposes the project, decided to challenge Rep. Carl Moses, for whom Edgmon was once an aide. Edgmon said Moses, who has since died, was “neutral at best” on Pebble.
Their primary ended in a tie that was settled with a coin toss that Edgmon won. He won election later that year and has served in the House since.
The major challenge currently facing lawmakers is how to address what the Legislative Finance Division has called “the gravest fiscal crisis in state history.” Alaska, which has long relied on oil revenue to fund state government, faces a multibillion-dollar deficit amid chronically low oil prices.
Edgmon sees the next two years as a chance to make choices that will keep Alaska in good stead well into the future. Part of the discussion must include new revenue, he said.
He doesn’t want to see a focus on cuts that will disproportionately impact rural Alaska and wants to maintain a “healthy” Alaska Permanent Fund dividend for residents, though at what level is unclear.
Foster said Edgmon is respectful of what you have to say, whether he agrees or not. If you disagree, you’re still friends, Foster said — Edgmon doesn’t take things personally.
Edgmon has seen music as a way to bridge divides and build relationships after-hours. He plays “anything with strings,” including the mandolin and banjo.
Though generally reserved in public, Edgmon said he can be quite chatty and has a sense of humor. He also is a Dallas Cowboys fan, a love he shares with leaders of the incoming GOP minority.
“Your currency down in Juneau is your ability to build good relationships and to have people trust you,” he said. “That goes above and beyond political brands or political parties.”