JUNEAU — The Alaska House’s largely-Democratic majority took a first step Monday morning toward removing Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, from legislative committees.
The move came in response to Eastman’s membership in the Oath Keepers, a far-right paramilitary organization whose leaders have been charged with seditious conspiracy during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. Eastman himself has not been accused of a crime and has denounced the charges as politically motivated. He said on Sunday that he will continue to associate with the group as long as it will have him.
Members of the House’s coalition majority have been considering for weeks whether Eastman’s membership violates the Alaska Constitution.
Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, and House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said there is insufficient support to expel Eastman from the House, an unprecedented action sought by some Alaskans.
Expulsion would require votes from 27 of the House’s 40 members. The majority coalition has only 21 members, and a successful expulsion vote would require at least some of the House’s 18-member Republican minority to approve.
The needed support isn’t there, Stutes said, and she believes forcing a vote could alienate members of the minority.
“We realize it’s a difficult position for the minority to vote against their own, and we recognize the fact that we have to have a working relationship going forward, and expelling him just wasn’t in the cards because the votes weren’t there,” she said.
With more severe action impossible, the House’s Committee on Committees voted 5-2 early Monday to strip Eastman of his committee assignments. Only 21 votes are needed to confirm the committee’s action, but a technical objection delayed the confirmation vote until at least Wednesday.
Removing Eastman from legislative committees would deny him the ability to influence bills before they reach the House floor but is unlikely to have long-term effects.
In 2020, Eastman’s own Republican colleagues asked to have him removed from legislative committees. Tilton said that amounted to a “timeout,” and Eastman was restored to committees when the Legislature reconvened in 2021.
“Well, we went through 2020. And we’re here now in 2022. And I don’t see a whole lot of change,” Tilton said.
When the committee’s recommendation reached the House floor on Monday, Eastman objected, saying that two separate votes were needed — one to remove him as an alternate member of the legislative ethics committee, and a second to remove him from other committees.
In addition, under state law, removing Eastman from the ethics committee requires 27 votes, not 21, as with the other committees.
Stutes called for a break to review Eastman’s objection, then tabled the House’s vote. She later said it was a “valid point of order,” and the committee on committees must re-vote and send a new plan to the full House.
The House will convene again on Wednesday, and Eastman remains a member of committees until then.
“It’s for the body to deal with, and that’s all I have,” Eastman said Monday when asked about the planned action.
In a written statement posted Sunday on his personal website, Eastman asked his supporters to sign a petition supporting him.
He said his connection to the Oath Keepers “is a slight one, having applied for membership more than a dozen years ago and never attended a meeting.”
A membership list posted online by an activist group last year listed Eastman as a “life member.”
On Monday in the seven-person Committee on Committees, Reps. Stutes; Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; Neal Foster, D-Nome; Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River; and Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, voted for removal. All are members of the coalition majority.
Voting against removal were House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, R-Anchorage and Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage. Both are members of the Republican minority.
Alaska’s constitution prohibits anyone “who advocates, or who aids or belongs to any party or organization or association which advocates, the overthrow by force or violence of the government of the United States or of the State” from holding public office or being paid by the state.
But Tilton said Eastman has not been accused of any crime, and she referred to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, whose protections for freedom of speech have been interpreted to give a right to freely associate with political or religious groups.
“I stand behind the fact that we have no evidence — we have no guilty convictions — of wrongdoing,” she said.
Shaw said he has similar beliefs.
“I am not going to put guilt before innocence. That’s not the way it works. I don’t have 100% certainty that he committed any wrongdoing,” he said.
Under the disloyalty clause, no individual wrongdoing is required — only membership in a group advocating violence against the state government or federal government. That clause has never been fought in court or interpreted in state law.
Shaw said he draws a line between members of the Oath Keepers who were indicted in mid-December and the organization itself. He referenced the organization’s bylaws, which he said advocate disobedience rather than revolution.
Shaw cited a key phrase: “We will not make war against our own people. We will not commit treason. We will defend the Republic.”
He contrasted that with the language in Article XII, Section 4, which defines disloyalty as membership in, or support of, “any party or organization or association which advocates, the overthrow by force or violence of the government of the United States or of the State.”
“He’s a member of an organization, no different than the NRA or any other organization you want to mention,” Shaw said.
On Shaw’s desk was a copy of a December analysis by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy, better known as West Point.
The authors of the analysis conclude that Oath Keepers have a tendency to implement their beliefs in violent ways.
“Oath Keepers rhetoric is deeply conspiratorial and promotes the need for a violent replacement of tyrannical forces in the United States due to an alleged imminent conflict with the federal government,” the analysis says in part.