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For first Alaska Native House speaker, a budget fix is personal

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published December 3, 2016

New Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon hails from Dillingham, which sits along Nushagak Bay in Southwestern Alaska. He was photographed at sunrise at the city dock Tuesday. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

DILLINGHAM — Alaska's past generations of rural legislative leaders helped build the state's Bush communities by tapping the steady stream of oil money for schools, programs and basic infrastructure.

But now, with low oil prices and dwindling production drying up that revenue stream Dillingham Rep. Bryce Edgmon, who's set to become the next state House Speaker, is trying to head off a collapse in rural Alaska.

The 55-year-old Democrat, a former commercial fisherman and legislative aide who first won his seat on a coin flip a decade ago, has lived most of his life in this fishing town of 2,400.

The Dillingham business district is spread out across a rise. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

He'll be the first speaker with Alaska Native ancestry. He keeps moose, fish and berries in his freezer. He says he's driven, in part, by a fear that the state's budget crisis could ultimately lead to the demise of his own lifestyle, and that of the rural community and district he represents.

"In some ways, this fiscal challenge in front of us is personal," Edgmon said. "I know it's not only my children and maybe their children's future, but it's also the future of our way of life out here in rural Alaska and a lot of our Native villages."

The normally taciturn Edgmon laid out his personal history and political philosophy in a series of interviews in his Southwest Alaska hometown over two days last week — much of it spent behind the wheel of his tidy Toyota pickup, from which he narrated a driving tour of Dillingham, its people and surrounding landscape.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon pauses to accept congratulations on his new role as Speaker of the House during a break in testimony at a public hearing with the visiting state Local Boundary Commission on Tuesday in Dillingham. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Edgmon's position in a new majority coalition of House Democrats and moderate Republicans was announced the day after last month's election — part of a reorganization of the chamber that ended more than two decades of GOP control.

Edgmon, who has joined Republican majorities for the last eight years, used to hold a spot on the 11-member House Finance Committee, where seats are coveted because of the ability to direct state spending to local projects. Now his new job puts him atop the entire 22-member coalition.

It's a move that parlays his centrist politics into a leadership position as did the philosophies of his predecessors, legendary rural Alaska Native lawmakers like Frank Ferguson, Al Adams and John Sackett — not to mention Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman, one of the next co-chairs of the Senate Finance Committee, whose district includes Edgmon's House district.

Edgmon "could serve in either party and probably be considered a moderate," said Norm Van Vactor, CEO of Dillingham-based Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.

Bush legislators like Sackett, Ferguson and Adams used their longevity, savvy and political flexibility to form coalitions with both parties — often placing themselves in leadership positions from which they could steer state spending to rural priorities like schools, roads and sewer and water systems.

Bristol Bay Native Association Chief Administrative Officer Wassiliisia “Dee Dee” Bennis, left, confers with Rep. Bryce Edgmon on state budget cuts and their effects on local services on Tuesday in Dillingham. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Edgmon follows in the same tradition. Except now, with the state facing a multibillion-dollar deficit, he's trying to fend off proposals from road system politicians to cut spending on existing rural programs and priorities.

Like others across Alaska, his district has seen millions of dollars of state money invested in infrastructure and construction projects, largely bankrolled by oil revenue. Edgmon's 20-mile drive between Dillingham and the 225-person village of Aleknagik took this reporter around to the state-owned airport, past a state trooper, and across a new $28.5 million bridge paid for with state and federal money.

But the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, in the last two years have slashed money for heating subsidies, regional jails, law enforcement and the state's public radio network. They've also contemplated more than doubling the minimum enrollment for schools to qualify for full state funding, which rural advocates say could shut down dozens of schools and cripple the small communities that have grown around them.

"The middle part of the state has no appetite for revenue," Edgmon said, referring to the preferences of some of his colleagues in the Railbelt for deep spending reductions before taxes or a restructuring of the Permanent Fund.

He added: "We've spent so much time and effort, human capital and political capital when we had it, in gearing up our communities to meet basic needs. And now we're at the precipice of not even having the wherewithal, throughout the state, to fund the operating costs."

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, right, chats with Port Director Jean Barrett following Barrett’s testimony before the visiting state Local Boundary Commission on Tuesday in Dillingham. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

While Edgmon may hold his own beliefs strongly, Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon said she hopes he'll understand how people from different parts of the state have different ideas about solving Alaska's budget crisis.

She said she thinks the Senate majority is likely to have less enthusiasm than the House for levying a statewide income tax and tinkering with its oil tax regime. But she expects to have a good line of communication with Edgmon, with whom MacKinnon served while she was a House member.

"I don't think that we've ever had a cross word," she said in a phone interview. "I think I respect his opinion and he respects mine, and I've seen that carried over in all relationships that he's had."

The new Senate president, Pete Kelly, was more blunt in a message.

"Bryce is a good guy. I'm sure we'll get along fine — until we don't," said Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican.

Edgmon has worked in the state Capitol through both wealthy and lean times, starting in 1989 when he first worked as a legislative aide.

Colorful salmon art adorns a building in Dillingham. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Edgmon's family hadn't been involved in politics. He worked as a commercial fisherman and was the only one of five children to graduate college — most of his siblings didn't finish high school, and three have battled drug and alcohol addictions and have been in and out of prison.

His hiring as an aide came after a chance encounter at University of Alaska Anchorage with George Jacko, another Native lawmaker.

Jacko was running for the state House, and he needed a campaign contact in Dillingham. Edgmon agreed to do it, and was offered a job when Jacko won the race.

Nushagak Bay ice drifts with the tide between the seawall, foreground, and the Peter Pan Seafoods plant on Tuesday in Dillingham. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

For the next decade, Edgmon split his time between commercial fishing in Dillingham and working in Juneau. He moved to the offices of Nome Rep. Richard Foster and Unalaska Rep. Carl Moses, both Democrats, after the Senate censured Jacko for seeking sexual favors from young women, including at least one aide. (Edgmon said he and other Jacko aides were "just as shocked" about the senator's behavior as everyone else.)

In 2006, Edgmon challenged Moses in the Democratic primary, pushed to run by friends and community leaders because of Moses' openness to the proposed Pebble mine — a project opposed by many Natives and commercial fishermen. A tie vote, 767 for each, dictated a coin flip under the law. Edgmon won when Moses called heads and the coin landed on tails.

The Democratic primary race between incumbent Representative Carl Moses and challenger Bryce Edgmon was settled by the flip of a coin on Sept. 25, 2006, at Loussac Library in Anchorage. Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, left, and Rep. Carl Moses, seated, who called “heads,” watched as state Division of Elections Director Whitney Brewster tossed a specially minted coin which landed on “tails,” giving Edgmon the election victory. (Bill Roth / ADN archive 2006)
Esther Togiak, Audrey Roberts, and Hjalmer Olson celebrated after Bryce Edgmon won the coin flip. (Bill Roth / ADN archive 2006)

Edgmon describes himself as pulled between two different lives — one rural, one urban. His birth certificate identifies him as three-sixteenths Aleut, but, Edgmon says: "My soul is a lot more than a mere quarter of Alaska Native blood."

His grandmother has roots tracing back to the upper Kuskokwim River area, and Edgmon was raised in a household where Yup'ik words and phrases were used to describe foods and activities.

"It's such a huge part of how I am, how I view the world," Edgmon said.

But his own rural lifestyle, and that of the residents of the more than 40 Southwest and Aleutian communities in his district, are getting squeezed by the state budget crisis.

For state budget discussions, Rep. Bryce Edgmon carries a two-page state finance printout wherever he goes. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

In his back pocket, Edgmon keeps a tattered two-page printout he pulls out for conversations with constituents in grocery stores and pickups.

The printout, a table and bar graph, shows the state's primary savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve, will be close to empty in June.

Also shown is that the next largest savings account — outside of the Permanent Fund's investment earnings — is the $1 billion Power Cost Equalization Fund, which helps pay rural Alaskans' electric bills.

Edgmon uses the pages to explain why he sees a restructuring of the Permanent Fund as almost certainly necessary, which will likely come with a corresponding reduction of the PFD checks many in his region rely on.

He has crisscrossed his district to convey the scope of the budget crisis, even as he says some of his colleagues on the road system could have done more to educate their own constituents.

Edgmon brought David Teal, the Legislature's budget analyst, to speak in Dillingham, took state Revenue Commissioner Randy Hoffbeck to Unalaska and Bristol Bay, and held his own forums in King Salmon, the Interior community of McGrath, and Sand Point, off the Alaska Peninsula.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, second from left in back, drops in to listen to testimony during a public hearing with the visiting state Local Boundary Commission on Tuesday in Dillingham. His wife Melody Nibeck, back right, was coordinating the commission’s visits to Manokotak and Dillingham as a local government specialist with the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Rural residents understand the budget deficit will force spending reductions, said Van Vactor, the Dillingham economic development executive. But there's also a sense that the Legislature's response could disproportionately target rural Alaska, he added.

"Underlying all of this is a fear, as rural Alaskans, that we probably have one of the most tenuous roads in front of us," said Van Vactor. "There are so many things we're so dependent on the state for help with. And yet we don't have the votes."

The debate over state spending on rural programs and services is a needed one, said Wasilla Republican Rep. Lynn Gattis, who originally floated the idea to increase Alaska's minimum school size.

Gattis, who lost a bid for state Senate in this year's Republican primary, once lived in Dillingham, and she sat next to Edgmon on the finance committee.

But she said in a phone interview that some Alaskans are tired of paying "for what somebody else isn't," citing the services in some rural areas that are covered by the state and federal governments, such as schools and health care, while residents of organized cities and boroughs have to pay property and sales taxes.

"They want, want, want, but they're not participating," Gattis said. "I don't say that either side is wrong. I'm just saying that you can't whine a whole bunch more without paying for it."

Edgmon is careful not to directly criticize any of his colleagues; he's a cautious speaker and says lawmakers can get more things done by working in the background than by publicly posturing.

As speaker, Edgmon said he hopes to tap his existing relationships with Republicans from the eight years he spent in their majority caucus. His friends and colleagues say he gets along with just about everyone.

Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby said it would be difficult to find someone in town who does not like the new Speaker of the House. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

"I'm sure there's someone who doesn't like him — I just don't know who it would be," said Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby, who's known Edgmon since childhood.

One other asset for Edgmon: He knows his way around a guitar. He's recorded several albums-worth of material, including a 1999 CD, "One Heart, Two Worlds," and once played a prom in the village of New Stuyahok. (His trio, Edgmon said, played each of the nine songs in its repertoire three times.)

The insert for Bryce Edgmon’s 1999 CD “One Heart, Two Worlds” includes a photo of Edgmon, right, performing in Juneau with the group Compass Rose. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Jam sessions are a welcome diversion at the Capitol, and Edgmon claims credit for naming a weekly gathering in the office of Foster, the former Nome representative: "Fridays at Foster's."

A lifelong musician, Bryce Edgmon plays his Taylor cutaway guitar at home in Dillingham. Edgmon promises there will be a guitar in his Speaker of the House office. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Playing music, Edgmon said, helps cement relationships between lawmakers, aides, and agency staff, and makes it easier to work across party lines — which could be no small thing given that Kelly, the incoming Senate president, plays drums.

"Music is the one language that speaks to everyone," Edgmon said.