Legislator takes job on Obama's team

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

Longtime Juneau Democrat Kim Elton resigned from the state Senate on Monday to take a job as director of Alaska affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

"This job is the funnel through which the Alaska issues are going to be addressed," Elton said in an interview after an emotional farewell speech in the Senate.

Gov. Sarah Palin will appoint Elton's replacement in the state Senate. Elton and Democratic Party leaders are pushing for House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula to get the nod. But Kerttula has been sharply critical of the governor since her run as Republican nominee for vice president last fall.

Palin and Elton have also been at odds, and Palin greeted the announcement of Elton's new job with the terse declaration that "Senator Elton pledged his allegiance to President Obama last summer." Palin also said in her written statement that she hopes Elton will use the job to Alaska's benefit.

Elton supported Obama in the presidential race. He also had a central role in the Legislature's "Troopergate" investigation of Palin, and the governor's surrogates accused Elton and other Democrats of playing partisan politics with it.

Elton was chairman of the Legislative Council, a bipartisan panel that voted unanimously last summer to investigate Palin's removal of Walt Monegan as public safety commissioner, as well as the allegations she pressured public safety officials to fire a trooper who was her ex-brother-in law.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Elton's background in Alaska issues and record of working with competing interests make him right for the Obama administration job.

Elton has held elective office in Juneau for nearly 20 years, first on the local Assembly and then representing the capital city for 14 years in the Legislature. He leaves as part of the bipartisan majority in the state Senate with a seat on the budget-writing finance committee.

Elton's background includes work as a newspaper reporter and editor, commercial fishing, and as executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

He's the only senator who consistently voted against resolutions urging Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Elton has said he supports ANWR exploration but opposes the resolutions because they aren't linked with conservation measures.

Obama is against ANWR drilling. But Elton said he and administration officials agree on the merits of pursuing a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48.

Elton joins an Interior Department that has sweeping power over Alaska. The department manages more than 200 million acres of land in the state and includes agencies like the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Fish and Wildlife Service.

Elton said he and Obama officials will work out the scope of the job. "This is not the czar for Alaska -- this is the person who works with the policymakers in Washington, D.C., on Alaska issues," he said.

Each secretary of the Interior since the Clinton administration has had a different approach to their Alaska representative, said Ron McCoy of the department's Alaska office.

In the Clinton administration, first Deborah Williams and then her successor, Marilyn Heiman, worked in Alaska, reporting to the Interior secretary in Washington. But in the Bush administration, one person was assigned to Alaska and the other to Washington. Drue Pearce held the Washington position until she went to work as the federal coordinator for Alaska natural gas transportation projects.

Obama appears to be taking a similar approach by appointing Elton as the Washington representative. The president is expected to name a second Interior department official who will be based in Alaska and report to Elton.

Elton is close to Pete Rouse, who was Obama's chief of staff in the U.S. Senate and is now a special adviser to the president. Rouse and Elton worked together in Juneau in the late 1970s on the staff of Alaska Republican Lt. Gov. Terry Miller.

Elton said he was initially offered the job in mid-January but demurred, saying he wanted to sit down with Interior officials first. Elton said he wanted the choice on both sides to be based on "what we know about each other rather than what we may have heard about each other." He attended Obama's inauguration, staying with Rouse, and met with the officials. The talks turned into a vetting process ending Friday with the job offered and accepted.

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, praised the selection of Elton. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, both Alaska Republicans, said they looked forward to working with him in Washington.

Palin has 30 days to choose a replacement for Elton in the state Senate.

The governor must pick a Democrat from Juneau and needs a majority of the Democrats in the Senate to approve her choice.

The Democratic Party in Juneau will submit up to three names for Palin to consider. It's traditional but not required for a governor to choose from among those names.

The possibility that Elton would leave prompted Juneau Democrats to start advertising in the local newspaper last week for names of potential replacements. But their preference is clearly for House minority leader Kerttula.

"I think Beth Kerttula has, I would say, 95 percent, of the support of (Juneau) Democrats," said Rich Listowski, a Democratic Party Central Committee member from Juneau.

Listowski acknowledged Kerttula has been critical of the governor in recent months.

"That's something that's on everybody's mind," Listowski said. "Hopefully the governor will take into consideration all of Beth's experience."

If Palin chose Kerttula for the state Senate, the selection process would be repeated to fill Kerttula's seat representing Juneau in the House.

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344. Daily News reporter Erika Bolstad contributed to this story.