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Parnell picks Kito to replace Beth Kerttula in Alaska Legislature

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 21, 2014

Gov. Sean Parnell has named a lobbyist with strong Republican ties to represent Juneau's heavily Democratic downtown House district. But by selecting Sam Kito III for the appointment Friday, Parnell also got a political perk for himself: He was able to name an Alaska Native to the Legislature while he's running against an Alaska Native for re-election.

Kito, if he wins the required confirmation by other Democrats in the House, would replace Rep. Beth Kerttula, who accepted a fellowship at Stanford University in California.

In the fall, Republican Parnell faces Alaska Native leader Byron Mallott as the likely Democratic candidate challenging Parnell's re-election bid for governor. Kito and Mallott are both of Tlingit heritage. Also in the race is Bill Walker, a Republican running as an independent.

Parnell said that his reason for naming Kito was due to the man's vision for the future, including the future of Kito's 14-year-old daughter.

"He's got a clear vision for the future he wants to create for not only his daughter, but the sons and daughters of District 32 residents and sons and daughters across the state," Parnell said.

That district is made up of part of Juneau, including downtown and Douglas Island, as well as neighboring communities of Skagway, Gustavus and others.

Parnell said he did not know of Kito's campaign contribution history prior to the announcement, and they played no role in the appointment.

Kito described his contributions as being to both Democrats and Republicans, and they were to "people who I had gotten to know personally."

One notable contribution was not made by Kito himself. Kito's father, well-known lobbyist Sam Kito Jr., contributed $500 to Parnell on Jan. 20, the day before Kerttula's announcement she was retiring.

In the public unveiling of his nominee Friday, accompanied by Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford and the capital city's other two legislators, Parnell outlined Kito's background without mentioning his lobbying work.

"His wealth of experience across the state is pretty incredible," Parnell said. "He's got a good working knowledge of everything from economic development to engineering, transportation, commercial fishing, quite a range of experience across the state."

Kito described several recent contributions to the Alaska Republican Party as "part of the work that I had being a lobbyist." Over the years, Kito appears to have made nearly as many contributions to Democrats as Republicans, something of a rarity in Republican-dominated Alaska politics. Many of those went to Native legislators, largely Democrats. "My personal beliefs are absolutely Democratic," he said.

Kito is a civil engineer, having worked on breakwaters and highways across the state, he said, ranging from paving DeBarr Road in Anchorage to Egan Drive in Juneau. These days, he said, 70 percent of his income comes from lobbying and 30 percent from engineering work.

Kito describes his lobbying work as "governmental relations" work.

Kito's lobbying expertise, however, is a skill that would enable a new lawmaker to hit the ground running with a third of the 2014 legislative session already over. The two other Democratic nominees were both legislative aides with similar expertise.

Parnell said he was holding with tradition of naming a new representative for the seat from a slate of three candidates provided by Tongass Democrats, the local party organization. He said he told them that if they'd provide "the customary three names, I would pick from those three."

That's in contrast to the controversial appointment of a replacement for former Juneau Sen. Kim Elton, when local Democrats feared that then-Gov. Sarah Palin would pick any nominee but her nemesis Kerttula. So the Democrats' "list" contained only a single name: Kerttula.

Palin nominated several others, including some who re-registered as Democrats to be eligible for the appointment. Democratic senators refused to confirm them, and finally former Juneau mayor Dennis Egan was a compromise appointee.

This time, the politics are much different. Kito is Alaska Native, as are several Democratic legislators. Redistricting recently cost two Native legislators their seats, meaning it would be unlikely Democratic representatives or Native representatives would fail to confirm a Native appointee.

And the required confirmation vote is by all the House Democrats, not just those who make up the nine-member House Minority Caucus. Four rural Democrats, including three of Alaska Native heritage, are members of the Republican-led House Majority Caucus.

Both Kito and the other two nominees, legislative aides Jesse Kiehl and Catherine Reardon, pledged to join the Democratic Minority.

That's important, because it takes 10 members under legislative rules to be considered an official minority caucus and be guaranteed staff and committee assignments. With Kito, there would again be 10 members of the Democratic minority.

After decrying national political partisanship, Parnell called on House Democrats to change the practice since 1990 of having a closed-door meeting and the announcing whether there were enough votes for confirmation in a letter.

Parnell said he wanted a public vote on the confirmation or some kind of consent on the House Floor.

Juneau's other legislators welcomed Kito to the team Friday.

Democrats are expected to make their confirmation decision late Monday.

"We have a very strong delegation and a history of working very closely together on behalf of our constituents," said Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau. Juneau's senator, Egan, is a Democrat who caucuses with the Republican majority.

Kito said he was not asked to pledge support for any part of the governor's agenda, and said he has not yet decided on how to vote on the Senate Bill 21 referendum.

He said he was concerned about the loss of revenues to the state, which Parnell had said would be reversed by the oil tax reform bill he sponsored.

"I'm not completely convinced that the system we have in place now is going to result in higher revenues," Kito said.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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