JUNEAU — Sen. Bill Wielechowski spent Friday morning as speaker, presiding over a half-filled Alaska House of Representatives. It wasn’t a senator seizing control of an unorganized House, but a chance for freshman legislators to learn the ropes before the session starts Tuesday.
The time was used to practice the carefully scripted procedures of a floor session. Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said it’s easy to make mistakes with legislative process, and he was happy to assure the freshmen that they will, inevitably, make mistakes.
The mock floor session was part of a full two-day orientation to teach lawmakers the basics of their new jobs. How the appropriation process works. How to pass a bill. How to run a committee meeting. There’s a lot to learn.
“It’s an absurd amount of information,” said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, who was first elected in 2012. He said it’s not possible to learn the culture of the Capitol in a week, or the breadth of legislation new lawmakers will need to become familiar with.
This is the largest freshman class of Alaska legislators since 2003, according to the Legislative Reference Library. Twenty legislators — or one-third of the total Legislature — will be brand-new lawmakers.
Intimidating. Overwhelming. Exciting. Those are some of the words they used to describe the feeling of standing on the precipice of becoming a state legislator.
“It’s just blowing my mind,” said Rep.-elect Stanley Wright, a Republican from Anchorage, on the House floor in front of his new desk. He has previously worked as a liaison to the Legislature for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, meaning he does have some legislative experience.
Some in this year’s freshman class are new to state politics. Rep.-elect Conrad “C.J.” McCormick has served on the Bethel City Council since being appointed to fill a vacancy in 2020, but he had never been to Juneau before he walked into the Capitol as a newly elected legislator.
Others, such as Ashley Carrick, know the building well after having worked as a legislative aide for the past six years.
“I know where the bathrooms are, right?” she said. “That’s the running joke.”
Carrick, a Fairbanks Democrat, is succeeding Rep. Adam Wool after he chose to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. She sat at the same desk on Thursday where she worked for the past three years as one of Wool’s aides.
“Surreal is probably the best word for it,” Carrick said about her new role.
Some in the new crop of lawmakers are being thrown into the deep end. Sen.-elect Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, is set to become co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, which will be the first committee in charge of crafting legislation to increase K-12 school funding — a top priority for the Legislature this year.
Tobin worked for four years as an aide to Democratic Sen. Tom Begich, who did not run for reelection, and was handpicked as his successor before her win in the November election. She helped as staff on Begich’s reading intervention bill — the Alaska Reads Act — and is excited to start work again on education policy.
Veteran lawmakers are paying attention to the size of this year’s freshman class, particularly in the House. Seventeen of 40 House members have never served in the Legislature before, and the Senate has vastly more legislative experience.
“One would think it’s going to make things a little slower, a little bit less efficient,” Josephson said. “Beyond that, I don’t really know what it means.”
An analogy used in the Capitol about passing big-ticket bills comes from dog mushing: “You can only move as fast as your slowest sled dog.”
In the corridors of the Capitol on Friday, newly elected legislators were pulled into rapid, whispered conversations with their colleagues. As of Friday, the House had still not organized — meaning until that changes, no legislative work can begin in that chamber once the Legislature convenes.
Among the freshmen themselves — a group that includes teachers, military veterans and a pharmacist — there’s a high level of excitement to get started on the work they were elected to do. The challenge now will be learning how to do it, and quickly.
The 33rd Alaska Legislature will convene its first regular session at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Ready or not, here it comes.