Palin makes 2nd pick for Senate vacancy

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

JUNEAU -- Gov. Sarah Palin on Monday appointed University of Alaska Southeast admissions director Joe Nelson to the state Senate, dropping nominee Tim Grussendorf after the Senate Democrats refused to budge on their rejection of him.

But that doesn't mean the fight is over for who gets the seat that came open when Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton resigned for an Obama administration job. Senate Democrats wanted Palin to work with Juneau Democratic Party officials on the selection, and Nelson's was not one of the four names that the Juneau Democrats forwarded to the governor as suggestions.

Rich Listowski, a state Democratic Party central committee member from Juneau, said Nelson hasn't been active in the party, unlike the four people recommended.

"As a member of the central committee I would urge the senators to vote this nomination down in favor of the more experienced candidates who have run areawide in Juneau and have won elections," Listowski said after hearing of the pick.

Palin didn't elaborate on why she chose Nelson, other than to say he's a "fine candidate." Nelson is a board member of Sealaska, the Southeast Alaska Native Corp. He is married to Mary Nelson, who used to represent Bethel as a Democrat in the state House and took a job last year as community sustainability manager for the proposed Donlin Creek Gold Mine in Western Alaska, commuting to the position from their home in Juneau.

Joe Nelson is a former assistant city attorney in Juneau and used to be a commercial fisherman in Yakutat, where he graduated from high school in 1988 and attended Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Nelson's views on political issues are not clear; he did not return messages left on his work, home and cell phones on Monday seeking comment after Palin announced his appointment.

The Senate Democrats plan to meet "in the near future" to figure out how and when they'll vote on the appointment, according to Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis.

"I don't really know much about him," said Ellis, Democrat from Anchorage.

Ellis said he liked the four names submitted by the Juneau Democrats. "The fact (Nelson) is not on the Juneau Democrats' list is not a mark in his favor for me personally," Ellis said.

The Juneau Democrats really want House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula to get the seat -- and that's the only name they originally submitted to Palin. But after Palin picked the more conservative Grussendorf over Kerttula, who has been critical of the governor, the Juneau Democrats submitted three additional names.

Those are Jeff Bush, a local Assembly member, Mike Miller, a Juneau legislator until 1985, and Sally Smith, a Fairbanks legislator until 1982 and former mayor of Juneau. It's been tradition for a governor to select from among party recommendations, but after the Democrats originally submitted only Kerttula's name, Palin opened the process to other applicants. "I am not limited by law to the recommendations of one interest group," she noted Monday.

Listowski said Nelson is a "talented young man and has a future in politics here in Juneau but for this Senate seat we need someone who has (political) experience."

Nelson serves on the Sealaska board with Angoon Democratic Sen. Albert Kookesh, who could not be reached for comment after the appointment. It's going to take a majority of the nine Senate Democrats to approve the appointment, a threshold previous Palin appointee Grussendorf couldn't cross.

The Senate Democrats last week rejected Grussendorf in a closed meeting. Palin objected to that, citing a 1987 Department of Law opinion, and said the vote needed to be in the open and involve the entire Senate, not just Democrats. She later amended that to say it just should be in the open -- not necessarily among the full Senate. She finally dropped Grussendorf Monday after seven of the nine Senate Democrats sent her a letter saying the rejection of him would stand.