Caucus fate to be decided

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

The first decision of the 2011 session of the Alaska Legislature won't be about spending or oil taxes. It will be about whether Reps. Kyle Johansen and Charisse Millett, who describe themselves as "great friends," will spend the year exiled together in a largely powerless caucus of two.

The House majority plans to decide the fates of Johansen and Millett in a closed door meeting in Juneau on Sunday night, two days before the start of this year's legislative session. Johansen and Millett walked out of the majority caucus in November during a dispute over committee assignments, and have been lobbying to get back in since.

Johansen, a Ketchikan Republican, has fallen far from the influential majority leader position he held before leaving the caucus. He sent his colleagues an e-mail last month apologizing for leaving the caucus, calling his actions a mistake, and saying that he's received "intense feedback" from his constituents.

Legislators say Millett, a Republican who represents a South Anchorage district, has been making phone calls to them in recent weeks, trying to smooth over the bad feelings.

Millett and Johansen have not returned any of the repeated messages from the Daily News since they walked out of the majority caucus in early November.

House Speaker Mike Chenault said this week that it's not clear whether there's enough support in the 26-member majority caucus to let the pair back in.

"I've had a number of people that call and say they don't have problems with it, and I've had a few that called and said, well, they still want to talk about it," said Chenault, a Nikiski Republican. "So the caucus will make that decision when we meet."

Millett and Johansen are not expected to get any committee chairmanships or leadership posts even if they are allowed back in the majority.

But if they remain exiled, Chenault said he does not plan to even give them committee seats, which is less power than even members of the minority Democratic caucus have. They could make arguments and vote on the floor, but that's about it.

Millett and Johansen would have a lot less chance of getting their own bills passed if they don't have fellow members of a caucus looking out for them. Exile could also hurt their ability to get money for their districts, since that's decided by the finance committees run by members of the majority caucus.

Haines Republican Rep. Bill Thomas, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, has been especially critical of the pair and doesn't want them back in the caucus. Majority members bristled at how Millett and Johansen left and subsequent comments criticizing the caucus for including rural Democrats, among other issues.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Craig Johnson, the incoming chairman of the House Rules Committee, said "there was an awful lot of damage done." Johnson said he's reserving judgment on the pair, waiting to see if they mended fences.

Johansen is Ketchikan's lone member of the Alaska House of Representatives and has come under blistering criticism in his hometown. The Ketchikan Daily News called on Johansen to resign from office, saying his priority was Millett, not his district.

Millett and Johansen, both of whom are divorced, are known to have a close personal relationship.

Johansen was pressed about the nature of their relationship at a town hall in Ketchikan last fall. He denied a romantic involvement and said she is a "great friend of mine."

There was talk at the Ketchikan town hall meeting of a possible recall effort.

Dick Coose, the Republican district chairman for Ketchikan, said this week that people in the Southeast Alaska city are watching closely to see if Johansen gets back in the caucus. "It is an interesting and difficult situation," Coose said.

The pair left the caucus after a blowup over committee assignments. Majority members say Millett left after losing out to Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker as chair of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee. Hawker, who has cancer, wanted to step down as co-chair of the House Finance Committee and take the lighter load of the budget and audit committee.

Johansen then offered to step down as majority leader if that would get Millett a seat on the Finance Committee. The caucus didn't agree, and he walked out.

Johansen has said he left because the caucus was going in the wrong direction on resource development. He's complained, for example, that Democratic Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham was put on the Finance Committee instead of Millett. But other legislators say that doesn't add up, because Edgmon only got the Finance seat through a chain reaction after Johansen walked out.

Johansen's departure opened up the job of majority leader, according to Chenault and other legislators, and Kodiak Republican Rep. Alan Austerman took the position. Austerman in turn gave up the Finance seat that Edgmon took.