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Alaska state Senate organizes with Kevin Meyer as president, 3 House seats still undecided

With several House races in the Alaska Legislature still undecided, the more stable Senate took its first steps Wednesday toward organizing for the upcoming 29th Legislature, with the Republican majority naming Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, as Senate President.

Tuesday's election increased the Senate Republican majority by one to 14, and the senators quickly responded with an organization that elevated Meyer, a 14-year legislative veteran, to replace Sen. Charlie Huggins of Wasilla. Sen. John Coghill of Fairbanks will continue as majority leader and Huggins took the leadership job of chairman of the Rules Committee.

The Republican majority in the House was solid even with three undecided races, two of them in Anchorage.

In East Anchorage's District 15, Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux strengthened her lead over Democrat Laurie Hummel as officials with the Alaska Division of Elections finished counting ballots early Wednesday morning. LeDoux was up 168 votes, but there are still questioned and absentee ballots to be counted.

Former Anchorage Assembly member Matt Claman's lead was even smaller over Republican Anand Dubey in West Anchorage's District 21 -- just 35 votes.

And in a Southeast squeaker, non-affiliated candidate Dan Ortiz had a tenuous 19-vote lead over Republican Chere Klein, with each hoping to replace retiring Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell.

On election night in Ketchikan, returns showed Ortiz polling more than half the vote, but just barely, at 50.03 percent. The race remains a toss-up as Ortiz hopes to become the Legislature's only elected independent.

When the last election results came in in the early morning hours, Ortiz had 2,608 votes, to 2,589 for Klein. Remaining absentee and early ballots will be counted Tuesday. The number of ballots the Elections Division says are yet to be counted could easily sway the House District 36 race.

Now, local observers are looking at communities and trying to figure out where those remaining ballots are from.

"Oh my goodness, I was out picking up signs in the rain today and I just had to smile and laugh -- you never know how things are going to turn out. And we still don't," said Wilson, from her home in Wrangell.

Klein is a former aide in Wilson's legislative office, and campaigned hard for her in Wrangell and Ketchikan. Wilson said she hopes a large proportion of the remaining votes are from Wrangell.

"Wrangell was two-thirds for Chere," Wilson said.

Klein also did well in some areas near Ketchikan, outside the city limits but still in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.

Ortiz had a lead in Ketchikan proper, but did even better in the three neighboring Native communities of Saxman, Metlakatla and Hydaburg.

For Ortiz to win, he needs the next ballots to be equally distributed as those already counted, but would prefer more from areas where he did well. His campaign is working on an analysis of where those votes are from, he said.

Klein, who was unavailable for comment Wednesday, was in Anchorage doing what she's long planned -- meeting with the Legislature's majority Republicans who will electing a Speaker of the House and allocating committee assignments and chairs.

Ortiz, who has said he would organize with whichever caucus would most benefit Ketchikan, is excluded from that process.

In a House of Representatives where Republicans hope to expand last year's 24-16 majority following this year's elections, Ketchikan's single seat doesn't look to make much of a difference.

After a closed-door morning meeting at the Associated General Contractors building in South Anchorage -- the same place they organized in 2012 -- the all-Republican Senate majority opened the doors to reporters for a news conference on their leadership and committee chairs. All but one of the 14 Republicans were present. Sen. Lesil McGuire, from Anchorage, said she left early to pick up her son.

The Republicans said they picked Anna Fairclough of Eagle River and Pete Kelly of Fairbanks, as co-chairs of the Senate Finance Committee.

Meyer said he would entertain requests by Democrats who want to join the majority. Two did last year: Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, and Donnie Olson, D-Golovin. They left five Democratic senators behind in the minority caucus, the bare minimum to maintain status in committees of the 20-member Senate.

McGuire served as Rules chair for the past two years. In that post, normally a routine assignment until the committee becomes a bottleneck at the ends of sessions, she blocked one of Gov. Sean Parnell's most controversial measures, House Bill 77, a wide-ranging bill designed to speed development and reduce public involvement in resource management. This time around, McGuire was picked to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Legislature.

The majority has two new members: Sen. Bill Stoltze, a former House member from Chugiak, who will chair the Senate State Affairs Committee, and Sen. Mia Costello, who served in the House from Anchorage, and will chair the Labor and Commerce Committee. They replaced Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, who retired, and Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, who ran for lieutenant governor.

Other posts announced Wednesday were Anchorage Sen. Cathy Giessel's reappointment to Senate Resources chair; Click Bishop of Fairbanks to Community and Regional Affairs Committee chair; Bert Stedman, Sitka, to Health and Social Services chair; Peter Micciche, Soldotna, to Transportation chair; Mike Dunleavy, Wasilla, to Education Committee chair; and Gary Stevens, Kodiak, to chairman of the joint Legislative Council.

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