Walker picks former businessman for vacant Alaska Senate seat, but Republicans will have a say

Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman Randall Kowalke is seen in this undated portrait provided by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. (Courtesy photo)

Gov. Bill Walker has chosen Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman Randall Kowalke to replace Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, who resigned to focus on his run for governor.

Kowalke, who narrowly won a seat on his borough assembly in 2015, was not among the three people recommended to the governor by the district’s Republicans in a process that took place after Dunleavy resigned Jan. 15.

To be seated in the Senate, Kowalke must receive the support of a majority of the 13 Republicans who remain. It is not clear whether Kowalke has that support.

Kowalke said he believes Sen. Shelly Hughes, R-Palmer; Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla; and Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, will vote against his selection. Hughes and Palmer issued press releases denouncing Kowalke’s selection.

“I guess it’s out of my hands,” he said by phone from the Mat-Su.

In a prepared statement, Walker said, “Randall is the best person to represent this district. He brings a wealth of perspective to the Senate at this critical moment in Alaska’s history, and will do an excellent job representing the values of the people of Senate District E.”

Alaska law requires only that a sitting governor select someone from the same political party and district within 30 days to fill a legislative vacancy. Alaska’s largest political parties, the Republicans and Democrats, have procedures to recommend a shortlist of candidates, but the governor is not required to abide by that list.

In this case, Kowalke had previously announced his intention to run for the seat held by Dunleavy. When Dunleavy resigned, he was among 11 people who applied for the vacancy but was not among the three finalists suggested to the governor.

By phone, Kowalke said he is “generally considered a conservative” and has been a Republican since he was a member of a “Teenagers for Goldwater” group.

Republican reaction to Walker’s selection was generally negative.

“This is typical of Gov. Walker flying by the seat of his pants. There’s a multi-decade process in place,” said Alaska Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock. “He just expects that his personal pick, his personal favorite, will get approved by the Republicans in the Senate, which is just a ridiculous assumption on his part.”

Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he would have preferred it if the governor had selected one of the three recommended candidates.

“If it were one of the three, right now, I would be researching the background and record of those individuals to consider approval, but at this point the Senate Majority Republicans will gather to discuss what we believe is the appropriate way forward,” he said.

Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, offered a similar comment in a prepared press release. Kelly’s note said the Senate’s Republicans will meet next week to discuss Kowalke’s selection.

Among the three finalists selected by District E Republicans were Todd Smoldon, Tom Braund and Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton.

Rauscher was not available for an interview Friday in the Capitol.

Walker’s decision comes less than two weeks after Rep. John Lincoln, D-Kotzebue, was sworn into the Alaska House to replace Dean Westlake, also from Kotzebue. As in Friday’s action, Lincoln was not among the three finalists selected by local Democrats to replace Westlake. Despite that fact, House Democrats voted unanimously to accept Lincoln as a replacement.

Walker will have a third opportunity to select a lawmaker in the next month. On Friday, Bethel Democrats announced they are now soliciting applications for candidates to replace Rep. Zach Fansler, D-Bethel, whose resignation becomes effective Feb. 12.

If Senate Republicans reject Kowalke, there is a risk that the Mat-Su could endure what Juneau did in 2009. In that year, Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, resigned from office. Local Democrats forwarded only one name, that of then-Rep. Beth Kerttula, to then-Gov. Sarah Palin. Palin rejected Kerttula and named three other appointments, who were rejected in turn by Democrats. Juneau was left without a senator for almost the entire session until current Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau was sworn in as a compromise.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.

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