On day three of the legislative session, House District 13 has representation and the lower chamber of the Alaska State Legislature has a speaker pro tempore (literally, “temporary speaker”) to facilitate business until the body can organize and elect a permanent Speaker of the House.
The 2018 elections afforded Republicans moderate gains, and within a week of the then-uncertified results, the GOP proclaimed a 21-member majority to supplant the Democratically controlled coalition that presided from 2016 to 2018. However, no such majority solidified. Representatives Gabrielle LeDoux (R-Anchorage) and Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) remained allied with Democrats. Rep. Gary Knopp (R-Soldotna) declined membership, reasoning that a majority caucus with just a one-vote majority would not survive the session, and called (unsuccessfully as of yet) for the formation of a new working group. Rep. Bart LeBon (R-Fairbanks) was still deadlocked in a race against Democratic challenger Kathryn Dodge for the seat left vacant when Scott Kawasaki ascended to the Senate.
A further cog in the wheel arose when District 13 Representative-elect Nancy Dahlstrom (R-JBER/Eagle River) was tapped by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy to be Commissioner of the Department of Corrections (DOC). That 21 majority, without LeDoux, Stutes, LeBon, and a representative for District 13, quickly materialized as a group of 18, which, despite what members called themselves, was not a majority of anything.
That membership would swell to 20. The Alaska Supreme Court would ultimately uphold LeBon’s one-vote victory. Dunleavy appointed Sharon Jackson to fill the vacancy in Eagle River, but Uniform Rules and state statutes require a House Speaker or, in lieu of organization, a Speaker Pro Tem to confirm such appointments:
On the day set for the assembling of the the first regular session of a legislature, the lieutenant governor shall call each house to order and direct the calling of roll of its districts and the names of the new members who are certified as being elected from each district. The lieutenant governor shall then direct the administration of the oath of office of each new member. The lieutenant governor shall then call for the nomination of a temporary president of speaker, as appropriate. Upon the election of the temporary presiding officers, the lieutenant governor shall relinquish the chair, and each house shall proceed to its further organization.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, indeed, attempted to conduct business beyond what is laid out in the accepted protocol on Monday morning, but was interrupted when Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) noted on the floor that the only authority accorded the lieutenant governor was to elect a speaker pro tem. Some — most notably among them, Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla) — cried foul when Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) disrupted proceedings to point this out (Meyer, as lieutenant governor, is part of the executive branch). However, it’s a plainly procedural check and balance and an assurance of due process, and Meyer acquiesced.
Seemingly in protest, Jackson attempted to circumvent process by getting sworn in by a deputy clerk at a courthouse across the street. The oddity was recorded by freshman Rep. Josh Revak (R-Anchorage). General Counsel for the Alaska Court System, Nancy Meade, told the Alaska Landmine’s Jeff Landfield, “A court clerk doesn’t have the authority to make anyone a legislator.”
Meyer was back at the Speaker’s desk Wednesday afternoon when the House gaveled back in. He opened by accepting nominations from the full body for speaker pro tem. Rep. Dave Talerico (R-Healy), who had been the initial prospect to serve as speaker for the GOP-led-majority-that-couldn’t, nominated Rep. Mark Neuman (R-Big Lake), making a point to note that the longtime legislator was the longest-serving member. Tuck, in turn, nominated Neal Foster (D-Nome).
Eastman objected, asking to wave Uniform Rules to seat Jackson.
“Currently, as I look to the board, I see that there are over 17,000 Alaskans not represented in this vote, and they have a right under our constitution to be a part of this election,” he said.
“The member from District 13 — the vacancy — doesn’t have an opportunity to vote on this,” Tuck countered. “We first have to get that person sworn in, and, to do that, we’ve got to get a presiding officer or at least have a speaker pro tem and allow that speaker pro tem to have the ability to swear that person in.”
“Mr. Eastman, as much as I may or may not agree with you, my job here as lieutenant governor is just to get a speaker pro tem,” Meyer concluded. “I think it’s the will of the body that we move forward with these two nominations [for speaker pro tem] and let your new speaker pro tem, whoever that may be, swear in the new representative from District 13.” Meyer ruled the objection out of order. The House, except Eastman, concurred. (You’ll be seeing a lot of pictures like this in the coming months.)
With that out of the way, the body turned to the nomination of Rep. Neuman, who fell shy of the needed 20 votes (Jackson still had not been sworn in). The leftovers from last year’s Democratic-led coalition voted in opposition and picked up Rep. Knopp to result in a 19-20 tally.
Foster eclipsed Neuman’s vote tally easily, 35-4, with Eastman, Neuman, Rauscher (R-Sutton), and Sullivan-Leonard (R-Wasilla) dissenting. The 48-year-old Nome Democrat has served in the House since 2009, when he was appointed to replace his father, Richard Foster, after he died a month earlier. He is a third-generation member of the Alaska State Legislature.
Lt. Gov. Meyer then vacated the speaker’s chair to Foster, who swore in Rep. Sharon Jackson, escorted to the front of the room by freshman representatives Zack Fields (D-Anchorage) and Sarah Rasmussen (R-Anchorage). The swearing in occurred unimpeded, by the books, and for-realsies.
Welcome to the House, Rep. Sharon Jackson.
The House will reconvene Friday afternoon.