Alaska Legislature

Alaska Legislature rejects Pebble employee for state Board of Fisheries

Joint session

JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature rejected one of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s picks for the Alaska Board of Fisheries but otherwise broadly supported the governor’s choices for his cabinet and state boards and commissions during a rare joint session of the state House and Senate.

The 41-18 vote against Abe Williams, a commercial fisherman and employee of the company developing Pebble mine, was a “drubbing,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham.

State lawmakers met in joint session Tuesday for only the second time since the COVID-19 pandemic began and voted on 179 picks for various boards and commissions. Among the nominees were three members of the governor’s cabinet:

• Legislators confirmed Attorney General Treg Taylor by a 35-24 margin, one of the closest of the day;

• Jim Cockrell, Dunleavy’s pick for commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, was confirmed without objection;

• Lucinda Mahoney was confirmed as revenue commissioner in a 53-6 vote.

Lawmakers have rejected a governor’s cabinet pick only once, in 2009, when they failed to confirm Wayne Anthony Ross as attorney general to then-Gov. Sarah Palin.

“When I am considering the governor’s appointees, I am always considering that these are his to make,” said Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, during debate over a non-cabinet official.

The vote on Taylor was closer than usual for such positions, and lawmakers offered several reasons for voting no.

Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, said she believes Taylor may have had secret knowledge of the incidents that led to the resignations of Kevin Clarkson and Ed Sniffen, Dunleavy’s first two picks for attorney general.

Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, said she didn’t support his decisions on the state’s COVID-19 public health restrictions.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage said Taylor was less than forthcoming about his decision to waive a state ethics law for former Dunleavy chief of staff Ben Stevens. Last weekend, a public-interest group accused Taylor of lying in testimony about the waiver, but no lawmakers made that claim.

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, voted against Taylor but said his handling of the ethics waiver was appropriate.

Several lawmakers spoke in Taylor’s defense, saying he is qualified to serve and is a good person.

“I find him to be of good character and find him to be suitable,” said Sen. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage.

3 appointees are rejected

The COVID-19 pandemic prevented lawmakers from meeting in joint session last year, and a dispute over the Legislature’s failure to meet was only resolved with a ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court in April.

That left the Legislature to consider two years’ worth of nominees in a single day. Most nominees received no objection.

Other than Williams, legislators rejected only two other appointees:

• John Cox missed confirmation to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board by one vote, 30-29. Thirty-one votes, reflecting a majority of the 60-person Legislature, were needed.

• Annette Gwalthney-Jones was denied confirmation to the Alaska Mental Health Trust Board of Trustees, 29-30, because of inflammatory social media posts, including one from January that said supporters of President Donald Trump at Harvard were being persecuted “kind of like how Hitler went after the Jews.”

Williams, regional affairs director for the Pebble Limited Partnership, is a longtime Bristol Bay commercial fisherman from King Salmon, in the region where the mine would be built.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, urged fellow lawmakers to “look down into your soul” and vote against Williams. He said his position is based on Williams’ fishery views, not his employment by Pebble.

Bristol Bay gillnet fishing boats can be no longer than 32 feet, and Williams has supported extending that length, Edgmon said. Williams also has suggested that individuals be allowed to hold multiple Bristol Bay fishing permits, Edgmon said.

“We would see those individuals with deep pockets be the ones that get the larger vessels to capture more of the resources, and the people in the villages would not have the resources to invest in and buy the larger boats,” he said.

Some closer votes

Another Board of Fisheries nominee, Märit Carlson-Van Dort, was targeted by an intense lobbying campaign from the United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s largest commercial fishing organization. The organization said Van Dort is too favorable to sport fishing interests despite occupying a seat traditionally reserved for a commercial fishing representative.

“Because UFA is the basic spokesperson for commercial fishing, the fact that every member is opposed speaks volumes to me,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan.

Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, represents the district where Van Dort lives. She noted that Van Dort is “the first Alaska Native woman to be confirmed as chair of the Board of Fish” and votes 91% in line with John Jensen, a Petersburg man who has served on the Board of Fish since 2003 and was unanimously confirmed Tuesday.

Van Dort was confirmed, 36-23.

One other close vote came in the early afternoon, when Kristie Babcock was confirmed to the Alaska Judicial Council.

The council considers nominees for judicial vacancies and picks a short list of finalists for selection by the governor. Later this month, the council will consider an upcoming vacancy on the Alaska Supreme Court.

Babcock is the husband of Tuckerman Babcock, the conservative former chairman of the Alaska Republican Party. Babcock served as Dunleavy’s first chief of staff.

Babcock is from the Kenai Peninsula, and several Democratic lawmakers said it is inappropriate to have three members of the council from Southcentral Alaska and none from rural Alaska.

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, said the Alaska Constitution requires council members be appointed “with due consideration to area representation.”

Republicans responded that without Babcock, the council would have no members from the Kenai, denying that area representation. Some suggested that talk of representation was just a stalking horse for objections to Babcock’s politics and that she is qualified for the job.

“I understand the cynical political nature of the process we’re engaging in,” said Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski.

Babcock was confirmed, 33-26.

Correction: The initial version of this article incorrectly reported that Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, criticized Taylor’s handling of an ethics waiver. He praised Taylor’s handling but ultimately voted against confirmation.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.