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Palin picks Grussendorf for Juneau Senate seat

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service

JUNEAU -- Gov. Sarah Palin has appointed legislative aide Tim Grussendorf to the state Senate seat that opened when Juneau Democrat Kim Elton resigned. It's a controversial pick that Grussendorf's own party says it will try to block.

Palin had to pick a Democrat from Juneau for the seat under state law. But Grussendorf was a registered Republican until just weeks ago, then switched to being a Democrat to qualify for the appointment. Grussendorf now needs a majority vote of the nine Democrats in the state Senate to approve his appointment.

Juneau Democratic Party officials want state House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula to get the Senate seat instead and are rallying party leaders statewide.

"We're asking them to call their senators and encourage their senator to stand behind Beth Kerttula and vote this nomination down," Rich Listowski, a state Democratic Party central committee member from Juneau, said after Palin made the pick Sunday.

Grussendorf, however, does have Democratic bona fides and relationships with the senators who will vote on him. He is chief of staff for Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman and his father is Ben Grussendorf, a former Democratic state House speaker from Sitka. Tim Grussendorf himself ran for the state House as a Democrat in 2002, losing to then Juneau Republican Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch.

Tim Grussendorf said he never meant to be a registered Republican. He said that he changed his party registration from Democrat to undeclared in 2006, so he could vote in the closed Republican primary, which had contested races he wanted to participate in. Grussendorf said he then requested an absentee ballot to vote while out of town in the Republican primary, and somehow that resulted in his party registration being mistakenly changed to Republican.

He said he always believed he was registered as undeclared until recently, when he started hearing he couldn't be considered for the Senate appointment because he was a Republican. He said he then called the division of elections, learned of his Republican status and changed his registration back to Democrat.

Grussendorf describes himself as a conservative Democrat who supports resource development and believes the mining industry isn't always treated fairly. Palin noted his "advocacy for responsible development that will lead to jobs in Southeast Alaska," when asked about her pick. She also talked about his involvement in the community and schools. He is president of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance and a board member of the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association. He's also a volunteer sports coach, and is assistant basketball coach at Floyd Dryden Middle School in Juneau.

"I am confident he will be able to hit the ground running," Palin said in a written statement.

He could have trouble getting the Senate Democrats to give him that chance. Grussendorf's boss, Bethel Democrat Hoffman, has said he'd be inclined to support whomever Palin chose. But Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French has a different view.

"I've been fairly consistent that I wanted to work with the Juneau Democrats. I think that they should have a significant voice in the selection of who their next senator is," French said. "They're the ones who are going to be represented by this person."

Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Joe Thomas said it sounds like most of the Democrats in the state Senate are inclined to look at what the Democratic Party in Juneau wants. But Thomas said he also thinks that the Juneau Democrats made a mistake in forwarding only Kerttula's name for the appointment after Elton resigned the seat to take a job in the Obama administration.

It's traditional, but not required, for Alaska governors to pick from the party recommendations when filling an open seat in the Legislature. But it's also been practice in recent years for the party to submit at least three names for the governor to choose from.

That didn't happen in this case, and the Republican governor opened the process up to other applicants.

Grussendorf was talking to Democratic state senators on Sunday, trying to win their support.

"I know some of them want (Kerttula) to have the seat. But I threw my name in the hat knowing some of the history and I didn't think the governor was going to select her. And if that was going to be the case I was looking at, well who else can step in there right now and get the job done," Grussendorf said.

Kerttula has been highly critical of Palin since the governor's run last fall as the Republican vice presidential nominee. Grussendorf said his interview with Palin gave him the impression other issues were at work. Juneau's senate seat covers the Mendenhall Valley district, now represented in the state House by a Republican, and downtown/Douglas Island, which always has a Democrat in the House.

"I'm a pretty conservative Democrat ... her thought process I believe was trying to find someone who can represent both districts. And I believe that I fit that bill. The second thing I think she was looking for is who can seamlessly step into the Senate here," Grussendorf said.

Grussendorf said his relationship with senators in the bipartisan majority, in which he's worked ever since it was formed three years ago, makes him ready to jump in. Juneau Democratic Party officials, however, maintain that state Rep. Kerttula is the best choice to step in right away and is more qualified for the job.

Juneau Democratic Party official Listowski said he thinks Palin might have picked Grussendorf over Kerttula because he'd be an easier candidate for a Republican to beat when the senate seat is up for election in a year and a half. Palin dismissed that, saying she has no idea who will run for the seat next year.

Listowski said Grussendorf would never make it past Kerttula in the Democratic primary next summer, if Kerttula decided to make her own run for the Senate seat.

"She would beat him like a drum," he said.

Kerttula said Sunday she is indeed thinking of running for the seat herself if the Senate Democrats confirm Grussendorf. But she still thinks she might get it sooner.

"I'd like to be appointed still. I'm still hoping that will happen," Kerttula said.

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham.


By SEAN COCKERHAM
scockerham@adn.com