Senate vacancy flap entangles Ross

AG nominee's advice on filling seat threatens confirmation.

April 15, 2009 

JUNEAU -- Gov. Sarah Palin late Wednesday reappointed Tim Grussendorf to the open state Senate seat in spite of Senate Democrats already rejecting him for the job. The ongoing war between lawmakers and Palin over the seat is now spilling into other areas, including her choice for attorney general.

Palin's appointee for Alaska attorney general, Wayne Anthony Ross, is up for a confirmation vote of the Legislature today. Lawmakers said Wednesday that Ross' chances are being jeopardized by his role in the fight over the Senate seat, and that they now expect the vote on his confirmation to be close.

"The conversation (about Ross) in the halls today has changed as a result of the legal advice he supposedly provided Gov. Palin with respect to this Senate vacancy replacement. ... It brings the question back up again as to whether the attorney general ought to be neutral and serve on behalf of Alaskans as opposed to serving at the pleasure of the governor," said Anchorage Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire, who said she will still likely vote in favor of Ross.

The conflict is over a state Senate seat vacant since March 2, when longtime Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton resigned for a job in the Obama administration. The law says Palin needs a majority of the nine Senate Democrats to approve her pick for Elton's replacement. They rejected her first two picks, Grussendorf and Joe Nelson. Palin then re-submitted the names of Grussendorf and Nelson on Tuesday night, along with that of Alan Wilson, a Juneau contractor opposed in part because he just became a Democrat on March 4. The governor said Senate Democrats could choose among them.

But legislative lawyer Pam Finley wrote a memo Wednesday saying "the governor's presenting more than one name at a time to fill a vacancy in the state Legislature does not comply with state law." Ross signed off on Palin submitting multiple names and he raised eyebrows in the Legislature with his reaction to a reporter Wednesday morning when first shown the memo calling it illegal.

"It seems to me the most important thing that can be done by the Senate is not argue with legal or illegal but to appoint somebody to represent Juneau," he said.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French gave a speech on the Senate floor calling that a "very troubling suggestion from the attorney general that we ignore the law."

Ross also said Wednesday morning he needed to review the memo that said Palin's submission of multiple names wasn't legal. Then, late Wednesday, Palin sent a new letter to the Senate saying she wanted to "eliminate confusion" and make clear that she meant to forward the names of the three candidates in order of her preference -- not as one batch.

Palin said in her new letter that she was re-appointing Grussendorf. And said that, if the Senate Democrats reject him again, then she was appointing Nelson. And -- if Nelson is rejected again -- Palin said she was appointing Wilson.

The Legislature's legal opinion said it was unclear if Palin could appoint someone previously rejected, although it said if state law "were interpreted in line with the clear intent that the governor appoint someone who has not already been rejected, a second appointment of Mr. Grussendorf would also be improper."

It was also not clear Wednesday night if Senate Democrats might now vote on Grussendorf -- or if he has any more support than he did when they rejected him in a closed door meeting March 31. Some opposed Grussendorf because he was a registered Republican until just a few weeks ago, although Grussen- dorf says that was a mistake by the Division of Elections and he had meant to be registered as undeclared before switching back to Democrat so that he could qualify for the appointment to the state Senate.

Grussendorf is chief of staff to Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman, one of the most influential senators as a budget writer. Hoffman argues Grussendorf has experience with legislative work and could be ready to step in right away. He gave a little smile when asked if Grussendorf now has enough support.

"I don't know," he said.

There are just four days remaining before the Legislature is to adjourn for the year. The issue today will be whether Ross has majority support in the full Legislature needed to be confirmed as attorney general. Ross conceded his involvement in the flap over the open state Senate seat is going to make it harder.

"I get involved in this kind of donnybrook, I probably won't get any votes from the people that disagree with me. So I may be through tomorrow afternoon, who knows?" Ross said Wednesday morning. "But I'm hoping I'll get a chance to be confirmed."

Ross said a 1987 legal opinion indicates the method of Senate Democrats' rejection of Grussendorf and Nelson wasn't valid. The 22-year-old opinion challenges existing state law on confirmations -- which is the way many currently serving in the Legislature were confirmed, including Palin appointee Rep. Wes Keller.

Palin is not pressing the 1987 legal issue, but Ross said she is giving senators a chance to reconsider the rejections, as well as consider the new name of Wilson.

"One of the things I'd like to do as attorney general is, if confirmed, is to get more dialogue going between the people and quit having barbs thrown at the governor all the time when she's trying to get representation for the people of Juneau," Ross said.

Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis said Ross' confirmation is now in question.

"It's an open question in the minds of most people," said Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat. "It had looked like he would have plenty of votes to be confirmed in spite of some of the feelings. But this is Exhibit A against his statement that he would be an independent attorney general and stand up for the law."

There are more Republicans than Democrats in the Legislature, though. Republican Senate President Gary Stevens said he thinks the Republicans will stick with Ross. McGuire said she still believes it is a governor's prerogative to select an attorney general.

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