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Musk Ox revolt: How Republicans lost control of the Alaska House for first time in years

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  • Updated: November 15, 2016
  • Published November 13, 2016
State Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, speaks at a news conference last week announcing a 22-member majority coalition made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

State Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, speaks at a news conference last week announcing a 22-member majority coalition made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

The Alaska House's new ruling coalition is almost entirely Democratic. But it couldn't have happened without three Republicans who joined too, taking a big political risk by defecting from the outgoing GOP-led majority.

Wednesday's announcement of the caucus' formation upended more than two decades of Republican control of the House and rippled through the state's political world.

But it was far from unexpected: tensions within the GOP caucus had been building for more than a year, and voters this year dumped seven of its members, with an eighth, Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett, hanging on by her fingernails with ballots still out.

The result was the departure from the caucus of three moderate Republicans — Reps. Gabrielle LeDoux of Anchorage, Paul Seaton of Homer and Louise Stutes of Kodiak — who joined with 17 Democrats and a pair of independents to assemble just enough votes to take over the 40-member House.

Seaton said the three were fed up with an attitude from some of their GOP colleagues who refused to entertain budget-reform measures like new taxes or Permanent Fund dividend reductions.

Instead, some Republican majority members fought those ideas and pushed for deeper budget cuts, with experts noting that the state's $3 billion deficit exceeds the annual payroll of the state's 24,000 workers. If all were laid off, from the governor to a ditch-digger, the state would still face a deficit.

Alaska House representatives announced a 22-member majority coalition made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents on Wednesday in Anchorage. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Alaska House representatives announced a 22-member majority coalition made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents on Wednesday in Anchorage. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Wednesday's announcement of the new caucus was a public acknowledgement that the state budget crisis had stretched the GOP majority, fraught with irreconcilable differences, past its breaking point.

Some of the other Republicans "just want to cut spending and deplete our savings accounts," Seaton said in a phone interview, likening that position to "robbing the piggy bank." He added: "That's their only plan."

'Life got easier'

Members of the outgoing Republican leadership don't deny that they had philosophical differences with Seaton, Stutes, and LeDoux. But they also pointed out that the three received big political rewards from the Democrats.

"Look at the leadership roles in the new group — they're all those guys," said Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, part of another group of legislators leaving the Republican House majority — the three who gave up their seats to run for the state Senate. Johnson and Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, lost.

Two of the House's most important leadership posts went to Seaton, the new co-chair of the House Finance Committee, and LeDoux, who will chair the House Rules Committee. Even Stutes, who's just finishing her freshman term, got a leadership job, majority whip.

"It's her second term. Really?" Johnson said.

Other House Republicans sounded almost happy to be relegated to the sidelines for the next two years, as the new majority's members are likely to face a series of tough votes on the deficit reduction measures they've vowed to approve.

"Life got easier," quipped Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, who's been co-chair of the House Finance Committee for the last two years. "Whole lot less work involved."

The schism between LeDoux, Seaton and Stutes and the rest of their Republican caucus dates back to early 2015, when they wrote a letter to their leader, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, refusing to join his plan to use a Permanent Fund savings account to help cover the state's deficit.

Three other members of the Republican-led majority signed the letter, too. One was Dillingham Democratic Rep. Bryce Edgmon, the incoming House speaker. He's a Bush Democrat who declined to sit in the minority with urban Democrats.

Another was Palmer Republican Rep. Jim Colver, who lost his re-election bid in the August primary. The third was Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, the other incoming finance committee co-chair. Foster, like Edgmon, had followed a long tradition of rural Democrats joining whichever party is in power.

Chenault's majority never went through with the Permanent Fund plan, and his caucus stayed intact for another year.

But the fracture that emerged in the dispute never seemed to heal. The letter's signers sided with House Democrats on other key issues in this year's regular and special legislative sessions, from oil taxes to state worker pay to confirmation votes. The group even gave itself a name: the "Musk Ox Coalition." Some of their GOP colleagues derisively referred to them as "muskrats" instead.

The coalition's formation Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the polls closed, was no surprise to Juneau observers.

"It's been in the works for six months or more," said John Harris, a lobbyist who preceded Chenault as House speaker. "You knew it was possible, that if elections went a certain way there was a faction there that wasn't happy with the way things are going."

Rep.-elect Jason Grenn, of Anchorage, talks with Reps. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka, center, and Adam Wool, of Fairbanks. Alaska House members announced a 22-member majority coalition made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents last Wednesday. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Rep.-elect Jason Grenn, of Anchorage, talks with Reps. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka, center, and Adam Wool, of Fairbanks. Alaska House members announced a 22-member majority coalition made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents last Wednesday. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

The three Republican members of the coalition will be at its very center as members develop plans to close Alaska's multibillion-dollar budget deficit — especially Seaton and LeDoux, a pair of longtime legislators who will hold two of the top spots in the House organization.

Seaton, 71, the new co-chair of the House Finance Committee, is a commercial fisherman whose policy-oriented legislative office is almost like a think tank. He proposed a series of budget reform bills over the past two years, including oil-tax legislation, a personal income tax and a Permanent Fund tax credit, though his GOP majority colleagues never brought them to the floor for votes.

"Some things aren't popular," Seaton said in a phone interview. But, he added, he thinks "the most popular thing in the state" is solving the budget crisis.

Seaton, with his progressive politics, was unsuccessfully "primaried" this year by Homer Mayor Beth Wythe, a self-described conservative whose candidacy coincided with attacks from a business-backed political group that accused Seaton of siding with Democrats "on issue after issue." As a leader of the finance committee — through which all deficit-reduction bills are likely to pass — Seaton will have a prime post from which to shape the coalition's budget proposals.

LeDoux, 68, will chair the rules committee, a largely invisible post outside the Capitol but one recognized by everyone inside. The committee is the last stop before bills go the floor — making LeDoux a key gatekeeper at the frenetic conclusion of the legislative session for the next two years.

She has a history of dispensing with party labels, dating back to 2004 when she made her second run for a Kodiak state House seat — switching her party affiliation from Democratic to Republican in the process.

She later moved to Anchorage and won an east-side House seat, in a competitive district that's represented by a Democratic senator, Bill Wielechowski.

In a phone interview, LeDoux said she wasn't worried about backlash from her party for her decision to join a coalition filled with Democrats.

"We're hired to do a job, and the purpose of our job is not to keep our job," she said. "It's to actually do something."

A threat from GOP leadership

LeDoux's new position can be vested with nearly limitless power, as previous majorities have allowed rules committee chairs to unilaterally block legislation they dislike.

And while LeDoux said the coalition would judge legislation on its merits, she has also shown herself to be resolute in sidelining bills she personally opposes — like earlier this year, when she defied a high-profile lobbying campaign for legislation creating a statewide indoor smoking ban, bottling it up in the judiciary committee she chaired.

"That's Gabrielle," said Laine Welch, a Kodiak fisheries journalist who worked on LeDoux's 2004 campaign. "She doesn't give a damn what people think about her, in terms of holding strong to whatever it is she's trying to accomplish."

LeDoux, an attorney whose husband and youngest son were killed by an overloaded gravel truck in a 1992 crash, is known as an inexhaustible campaigner and fundraiser. Welch remembered her waking up at midnight to campaign during fish processors' shift changes in Kodiak, when workers came and went at the gate.

"She loves the game," Welch said. "I have never in my life seen anyone more driven, more organized, more tenacious than Gabrielle LeDoux. She's a force to be reckoned with."

The upcoming legislative session, and the next election, will test all three Republican coalition members.

They've already been threatened by Tuckerman Babcock, the state GOP chair, who wrote them a letter saying he aims to recruit primary challengers to each one.

Seaton pointed out that the letter was never actually delivered to his email account and speculated that its purpose was actually to keep the coalition from growing.

"It was to intimidate other members not to join," Seaton said. "That letter wasn't to us."

Other Republicans will have to balance potential partisan repercussions against backlash from voters who could punish a caucus that did little to fix the budget deficit.

Johnson, the rules committee chair for the outgoing Republican majority, argued that Seaton, Stutes and LeDoux would suffer voters' wrath if they approved the kinds deficit-reduction bills that Seaton has previously proposed.

"I think they're probably going to regret having to own the income tax and restructuring the dividend," Johnson said. LeDoux, he added, will "definitely get a primary."

The coalition's Republicans brush those threats aside.

In his letter, Babcock asked Stutes to return a $1,000 campaign contribution to the party; miffed, she responded with her own letter Friday in which she said she plans to send the cash to the Salvation Army instead.

"Priority one is my constituents; priority two is the state of Alaska," she wrote. "Priority three is party and caucus."

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