JUNEAU -- Rep. Beth Kerttula, the House minority leader since 2006 and a long-term Juneau Democrat, announced on the first day of the Legislature Tuesday that she was quitting for a fellowship at Stanford University in California.
The one-year fellowship, with a possible extension of another year, would involve researching the intersection of some of her favorite subjects: the coasts, law and state politics. She will also be a guest lecturer at Stanford, her undergraduate alma mater, she said.
Before her first election to the House from Juneau in 1998, Kerttula, 58, an attorney, worked with the state's Coastal Zone Management program as an assistant attorney general under independent Gov. Wally Hickel and Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles. She also worked for the state on several big pipeline tariff lawsuits against oil companies before she joined the Legislature.
The state's Coastal Zone Management program is now defunct. Kerttula has been a strong advocate for its restoration, but has been unable to gain traction against opposition that called it anti-development.
Speaking on the floor of the House in its final order of business Tuesday and surrounded by flowers brought in by other legislators, Kerttula gave a brief farewell speech, then said: "I hereby resign -- this is really hard to say -- I hereby resign my position as state representative, effective this Friday, Jan. 24th, at 5 p.m."
Her resignation as minority leader was immediate.
Anchorage Rep. Chris Tuck, 47, the Democrat's minority whip, took over as minority leader. Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, assumed Tuck's job as whip.
Two of Kerttula's staff members who work with the caucus, including spokesman Mark Gnadt, will likely work for Tuck, Kerttula said in an interview. Her two other staff members, including the Democrat's oil-tax guru, Ken Alper, will likely occupy the empty District 32 representative office until her successor is appointed, she said.
Kerttula is from a family of Finnish pioneers lured to the Matanuska Valley during the Great Depression. She's the daughter of the state's longest serving legislator, Jay Kerttula, an old-school Democrat from Palmer who was both House Speaker and Senate President. Both her father, 85, and mother, Joyce, 90, spend winters in Palm Springs but summer in Palmer, she said.
Her father still has 300 boxes of memorabilia and personal archives from his time in office in his Palmer basement, she said. She plans to be no such packrat, she said.
Her parents' health is good considering their age, she said, and her choice to leave the Legislature had nothing to do with family matters. Kerttula was absent from Juneau for several weeks during the 2013 session to look after her mother, who became gravely ill after a reaction to new heart medicine. Her mother has since recovered and recently flew on her own to Mexico to visit her other daughter.
Kerttula's resignation leaves the already tiny Democratic minority but a pipsqueak caucus with only nine members, one fewer than would entitle its members to any committee assignments under House rules. It's only through the grace of House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and his Republican-led caucus that the Democrats won't lose committees or staff.
"If we wanted to, we could change the whole committee structure and remove the minority from committees, but that's not my intention," Chenault said at a joint news conference with Kerttula later in the afternoon.
Kerttula said at the press conference she had "profound gratitude" for Chenault's treatment of the minority until the caucus is restored to 10 members -- assuming the person who takes her place doesn't defect to the majority.
Earlier, in an interview, she expressed doubt that Chenault would banish the Democrats. "Mike Chenault is a strong, smart guy, it's not his style, I believe that it's not his overall caucus's style. We've had good working relationships between the minority-majority. We disagree on issues, but everybody at the end of the day knows we're here for the state."
But Kerttula said she was still worried. "I woke up in the middle of the night when I realized that's what could happen, but I don't believe that is what will happen. My caucus understands it, and it's humbling because they still support what I'm going to do."
Kerttula announced her resignation during the opening floor session of the House, throwing an unusually momentous twist into a a day when ceremonial and housekeeping matters are the norm for both chambers.
By law and custom, the local party organization, Tongass Democrats, will submit three names for a possible replacement to Gov. Sean Parnell, who will then pick one to finish Kerttula's term. The House Democratic caucus would have the right to accept or reject the new member.
Alper said he would toss his name into what is likely to be a pile of potential candidates, given the political nature of the capital city's district, which extends north to Skagway and south to Petersburg. Jesse Kiehl, a local assemblyman and an aide to Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan, is also a likely candidate.
Including Kerttula, the House actually has 14 Democrats. But in a long-standing Alaska tradition, four Bush Democrats are members of Chenault's Republican-dominated caucus. Egan, a Democrat, is likewise one of two Democratic members of the Republican-led majority Senate caucus.
Kerttula said the visiting fellowship was a dream job for her in Stanford's new Center for Ocean Solutions, which she said is a consortium between Stanford, the Stanford law school, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The fellowship was only offered to her last week. She and her husband will relocate to the Bay area for the duration of the job, but expect to return to Juneau in a year or two.
She said she will work with academics and scientists on issues related to climate change, ocean acidification and the Arctic.
"I don't think I can overestimate my experience with coastal-zone management," she said. While she didn't have all the details on the fellowship, she said, "I know that what they were really interested in is my idea to bring together West Coast legislators and policy makers with scientists and people studying the ocean issues and to try to move that forward in the legislative realm."
At her news conference with Chenault, she didn't rule out a return to Alaska politics.
"I would've loved to have been speaker," she said. "It's just the times -- it's the way it is, but having gotten to be minority leader ... has been a great joy for me."
The Alaska House hasn't had a Democratic speaker since the end of the 18th Legislature in 1994.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER