Independent Alaska House member Josiah Patkotak was sworn in as mayor of the North Slope Borough on Tuesday, creating a vacancy in the Legislature that will be filled by Gov. Mike Dunleavy next month.
Patkotak, 29, won the mayoral race after serving in the Legislature since 2021. Patkotak is Iñupiaq from Utqiaġvik.
The district he represented, House District 40, includes the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs, and several Interior Alaska communities.
Vacancies in the Alaska Legislature must be filled by the governor within 30 days, according to state statute. The successor must belong to the same political party as the predecessor. Since Patkotak was unaffiliated with a party, Dunleavy can choose a replacement from any party.
Dunleavy, a Republican, said Tuesday that he is seeking applicants to fill the seat, and invited any resident of the district to apply by Oct. 31. He will then have 10 days to appoint a lawmaker.
A spokesperson for Dunleavy did not respond when asked if Dunleavy had sought advice on the replacement from Patkotak or anyone else. Patkotak did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Patkotak’s departure — and his replacement — could have implications for the tenuous majority governing the Alaska House.
The majority is made up of 19 Republicans, alongside four members of the Bush Caucus representing rural Alaska. The Bush Caucus, which until Tuesday was composed of two independents and two Democrats, holds influence in determining the makeup of the chamber leadership.
The legislative session earlier this year ended with turmoil in the majority. A key vote on the state budget divided the caucus, with 10 majority members voting in favor of the budget and 13 voting against it.
The vote revealed deep divisions within the majority, raising questions about whether it could withstand another session. Whoever replaces Patkotak, and their willingness to work with a mostly Republican caucus whose members disagree on the size of the Permanent Fund dividend, education funding and other key issues, could prove a deciding factor in the majority’s longevity.
While the governor is tasked with filling vacancies in the Legislature, his choice is subject to confirmation by the members of the legislator’s party. Because Patkotak is not a member of a party, the appointment may not be subject to a confirmation vote. But House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, an Eagle River Republican, said he thought the appointment could be subject to a vote by the mostly Republican majority caucus.
According to state statute, the appointee “shall be subject to confirmation by a majority of the members of the legislature who are members of the same political party or political group as the predecessor in office.”
Saddler said his interpretation of the statute was that the majority is the “political group” with which Patkotak was affiliated. But Saddler said the question is still up for legal interpretation, and it remains unclear if a confirmation vote would be needed. House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, said he too thought the law was ambiguous.
“We’ll be glad to work with whoever the governor appoints and gets confirmed, so I’m not going to speculate on organizational dynamics,” Saddler said.
Schrage, who leads a 16-member House minority composed mostly of Democrats, said the reorganization of the House was unlikely, but not impossible.
“Reorganization would be an extraordinary step, but we do live in extraordinary times,” said Schrage, referencing the recent ouster of U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. “The reality is that the power dynamics in the (Alaska) House are very tenuous and very fragile. I think we all saw that in this last session, and a big change like this certainly can have influence on the power balance.”
The Legislature is scheduled to convene in January.