The past three years have been anything but boring in the Alaskan political arena. The Legislative Assembly has its share of fights. While most of the attention on the infighting has focused on the Alaska House of Representatives and its six years of slim majorities, the Senate has escaped notice. That is, until now.
The Alaska Senate has not always had the advantage of being the quietest and most seemingly stable legislative arena in Alaska. For six years, ending in 2012, a bipartisan coalition of all Democrats and more than a few Republicans dominated the upper legislative chamber, serving as a backstop against a Republican-dominated House and then the government. Sean Parnell, also a Republican. This wall of resistance ended in the 2012 elections, and the formation of an almost exclusively Republican majority in 2013 has remained intact, sometimes imperfectly, ever since.
This year appears to be a turning point in the way state legislatures are constituted. Record levels of House and Senate retirements ensure that many new faces will be sworn in next January.
But it is in the Senate, unique in the country since it has only 20 senators, where vacancies have the most influence and impact.
Four senators are not running for election, including Senate President Peter Micciche and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich. This is the first time in living memory that such a double vacancy has happened in this way.
Sen. Natasha von Imhof of Anchorage and Sen. Lora Reinbold of Eagle River are also not seeking another term. Combined, nearly a quarter of the Senate will be eliminated before Alaskan voters cast a single ballot.
The consequences of this week’s official filings are enormous. It’s been an open secret in Juneau that the Senate Republican caucus has been split for four years virtually down the middle, mostly over issues related to the Permanent Fund dividend. Although the dividend controversy really erupted when former Governor Bill Walker vetoed part of the PFD in 2016, Senate infighting really grew a year later when the operating budget was formed. .
So-Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a member of the finance committee since entering the legislature in 2013, voted against the budget once a unilateral reduction in the annual dividend was included in the bill.
Dunleavy was followed in a later vote by Palmer’s Shelly Hughes in rejecting a budget based on reduced dividends (both left the majority caucus over these disagreements). Dunleavy eventually resigned his Senate seat in early 2018 and was elected governor in the fall.
The senatorial organization of 2018 was marked by the cleavage on the dividend and the use of the profits of the Permanent Fund. There have been genuine attempts by Senate Democrats to entice a handful of Republicans to cross over like they did in 2007 and put them back in power.
Democrats’ efforts were thwarted by Republicans’ ability to stick together. Micciche’s predecessor, Cathy Giessel of Anchorage, initially announced a caucus in 2019 that would balance the rights of individual lawmakers to vote their conscience on key issues with the need for a legislature to do its constitutionally mandated job.
This, combined with the election of a Republican governor and what appeared to be a Republican-dominated House, seemed enough incentive for the senators to shut up and work together.
But that arrangement was in tatters in the summer of 2019, with Giessel kicking out caucus members from key leadership positions and committee chairs over dividend voting differences. (Giessel, along with fellow leader John Coghill, were voted out by Republicans in the 2020 election. Giessel, like Walker, is seeking a return to office, while Coghill is seeking the congressional seat vacated by the death of the congressman. Don Young Congress in March. ).
At the start of 2021, it was unclear until the first day of the legislative session whether there would be a Republican- or Democrat-led Senate. And yet, when the hammer fell, it was Micciche de Soldotna who was named president by his peers, and who installed a caucus that demonstrated, at least on paper, that the Republicans were in charge.
But while on paper Republicans were leading the Senate, in practice they were a cripplingly divided caucus. The House and Senate Majority Caucus traditionally meet at least once a week. In 2022, it was reported that the Senate majority held fewer than a handful of meetings. The reasons were unclear, although the senators said, on condition of anonymity, that the decision was Micciche’s attempt to manage the volatile relationship between the members. Getting senators who otherwise wouldn’t talk to each other in a confined space seemed like a recipe for disaster, and Micciche was managing that dynamic.
Although some criticized what was perceived as recklessness on the part of the Senate president, others saw the Micciche conundrum placed: keep the Republicans together in a loose and uneasy alliance, or break up the caucus and allow Democrats to officially lead the agenda.
Another key dynamic was the makeup of the Senate Democratic caucus. Past leaders included Senator Johnny Ellis, a brilliant but bitter and ruthless politician who saw the role of the Democratic caucus in inflicting misery on Republicans at any cost. Ellis was replaced by Senator Berta Gardner, whose years as caucus leader were spent serving as a perpetual proxy for the Walker administration.
The election of Sen. Tom Begich as leader of the Senate Democrats marked an important transition for the party’s outlook. Begich, the son of a former congressman and brother of a former U.S. senator, was and is considered one of the Democratic Party’s top political operatives.
Representing a downtown stronghold (Begich took over from Ellis when he retired), the leader of the Democrats had a liberal base that would repay him thanks to his political pedigree and reputation, allowing him breathing room to work Republicans and the weight to hold back some of his explosive caucus members, a departure from what Senator Ellis encouraged and Senator Gardner seemed unable to stop.
For the past two years, much of the Senate Republican caucus has voted against their body’s final budget because of differences in how it was crafted by its architect, Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka. In order to get the budget off the ground, Senators Stedman and Micciche relied, initially with part, eventually all, on Senator Begich’s caucus to pass it. That leverage gave Senate Democrats, and Begich in particular, effective swing-vote status in the handicapped chamber.
This dynamic was evident in the final months of this year’s session. There’s an old adage whispered around the Capitol that “it’s always 2 to 1.” The “3” in this equation are the House, the Senate and the Governor. By May, the equation was set, and it was the Senate and Governor Dunleavy’s administration combining forces on issues such as a higher dividend, the Reading and Crime Bill, against a majority in the House dominated by members of the opposing Bill Walker Caucus. any republican initiative.
Once on the morning of May 19, the first time Alaskans hadn’t faced a special session prospect in four years, the dam broke on the Walker Caucus in the House.
The dividend from the permanent fund was set at the highest amount in state history, though the energy rebate, funded by the Constitutional Budget Reserve, failed by a single vote (a member of the Walker Caucus , Rep. Grier Hopkins of Fairbanks, dismissing that rejection, as his finger paused on the red or green button).
But the Senate majority and the Democratic caucus appeared to have reached agreement on bills that could pass, and most did, marking the 2022 session as one of the most productive in recent memory.
Micciche’s retirement makes him the third consecutive President of the Senate not to return after their terms ended (although Micciche left voluntarily as his two predecessors were defeated in their re-election bids). Tom Begich’s retirement leaves a vacancy in the Democratic caucus as well as a seat that it looks like will be filled by someone who currently represents him.
With the exit of two leaders and the playing field very undecided for most members of the Senate, the type of organization that will take shape is an open question.
Some politicians are betting that 2023 will finally be the year the Democratic caucus receives the keys to majority power with the agreement of several Republicans. There’s some credence to that. Unlike the House, which had nearly 100% turnover 10 years ago, several members of the former two-party coalition are still there, including Sens. Stedman and Gary Stevens of Kodiak. And Rep. Matt Claman, a Democrat from downtown Anchorage, is plotting an all-out assault for the seat held by Republican Senator Mia Costello of Jewel Lake.
However, some of these key potential coalition members are in relatively tough races. There is also the prospect of new entrants who will fill the strategic void left by Tom Begich and Peter Micciche.
Tuckerman Babcock, former chairman of the Alaska Republican Party and former chief of staff to Dunleavy, is running for Micciche’s Senate seat. Organizing a majority caucus is as much about relationship building and diplomacy as it is about managing party platforms and political platforms.
The huge potential for overhauling the Senate’s makeup actually makes the “master chamber,” unlike the House, the most potentially explosive arena for politics in Alaska this year.