Partisan politics be damned.
The Alaska House chose a leader on Tuesday, after two more Republicans voted with the mostly Democratic House Coalition to elect Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, as Speaker of the House. Edgmon changed his party from a Democrat to undeclared earlier this week.
“To hell with politics. I’m going to do what is right for Alaska,” Rep. Jennifer Johnston, an Anchorage Republican, said moments before casting her vote for Edgmon.
Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, also voted in favor of Edgmon. The tally was 21 ‘Yeas’ and 18 ‘Nays.’ Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, was absent.
“This has been a long hard road for a lot of us,” Kopp said of the House organization process, prior to casting his vote. “I’m a proud supporter of Rep. Dave Talerico. I’ve voted for him four times on the floor to be Speaker of the House. He’s a good friend, spiritual mentor, he’s got a great heart and he’s a great leader. My vote does not detract one iota from that.”
Talerico, a Healy Republican, was tagged previously by House Republicans to be speaker shortly after the November election. However, Knopp announced in December he would only join a bipartisan majority coalition. By leaving the House Republican caucus, Knopp left House Republicans with only 20 votes.
Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, nominated Edgmon Thursday, saying that Edgmon was the first Alaska Native to hold the House Speaker position during the previous legislative session and has demonstrated his “commitment to the Legislature and Alaska being that speaker.”
“As Speaker, he has been very fair,” Tuck said on the floor. “He’s a quiet leader, but listens to everyone. He passed the first bill in the 30th Alaska Legislature making sure it was a minority bill, making sure everybody had a voice.”
Kopp said he was “proud” to be moving the House forward with its organization and that is a higher priority than remaining status quo. The House had been gridlocked since the session started, unable to work on legislation due to lack of appointed leadership and organization.
Kopp added that his vote does not show a “lack of support” for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, although he does not agree with everything in the governor’s budget released this week. Dunleavy’s budget proposal calls for $1.6 billion reductions, that include major cuts to Medicaid, the Alaska Marine Highway System and the University of Alaska system.
When Edgmon took his seat behind the podium as House speaker, he thanked the House for its hard work the last five weeks.
“Given that the time remaining in the session is not ideally as it would be the full length of the session,” Edgmon said. “I still feel heartened in the sense that we can pick up where we left off, and make up for lost time and really focus on what the responsibility is in front of us which is a fiscally sustainable budget.”
It took the House 31 days to elect a leader in this 31st Legislative session. For the first month of session, the House Republican and House Coalition caucuses had been locked in a stalemate as neither of them could muster more than 20 votes to elect a speaker. Now there are only 59 days remaining in session according to the statutory limit and 89 days by the constitutional limit.
After the meeting, Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan, a Democrat, said she was “very pleased” with Edgmon becoming House speaker.
“I believe Bryce Edgmon is a true generational leader who truly believes in the long-term goals of Alaska — a non partisan who can lead for the long-term future of Alaska,” Hannan said. “It is my sense that there has always been dialogue from moderates in each of the parties trying to find common ground. I do think the budget rolling out helped lead to the idea of focusing on narrow set of issues.”
Down to business
Though there is now a permanent Speaker, the House is still not fully organized yet.
Edgmon appointed himself to be chair of the Committee on Committees, which makes committee assignments. He also appointed Reps. Neal Foster, D-Nome, Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole; Kopp and Johnston to the committee. The Committee on Committees is expected to meet sometime before the House floor session, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday.
Once the House majority is clearly staked out and committee assignments are made, the House can get down to business.
The composition of the House majority remains unclear at this point. But following Thursday’s House floor session, Edgmon said he expects Wilson, Thompson and Knopp would join the majority. If that were the case, there would be 24 members in the House majority. Edgmon said it is too early to say there will be 24 members in the majority, because there may be more House members joining.
• Contact reporter Kevin Baird at 523-2258 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alaska_kev.