The past three years has been anything but dull in the political arena of Alaska. The Legislature has its share of fighting. While most of the attention on internal squabbling has focused on the Alaska House of Representatives and its six years of slim majorities, the Senate escaped focus. That is, until now.
The Alaska Senate did not always have the benefit of being the most quiet and outwardly stable arena of lawmaking in Alaska. For six years, ending in 2012, a bipartisan coalition of all Democrats and more-than-a-few Republicans dominated the upper legislative hall, serving as a backstop against a Republican-dominated House and then-Gov. Sean Parnell, also a Republican. That wall of resistance ended in the 2012 elections, and the formation of an almost exclusively Republican majority in 2013 has been intact, imperfectly at times, since then.
This year appears to be a watershed in how the state’s lawmaking bodies constitute themselves. Record levels of retirements in both the House and the Senate guarantee a lot of new faces being sworn in next January.
But it is the Senate, unique in the country due having just 20 senators, where the vacancies have the greatest sway and impact.
Four senators are not seeking election, including the Senate President Peter Micciche and the Senate Minority leader Tom Begich. This is the first time in living memory such a dual vacancy occurred by that manner.
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 cycled out before Alaska voters cast a single ballot.
The consequences of this week’s official filings are huge. It has been an open secret in Juneau that the Senate Republican caucus has for four years been split virtually right down the middle of its membership, primarily on issues related to the Permanent Fund dividend. Though the controversy over the dividend really ignited when former Gov. Bill Walker vetoed part of the PFD in 2016, the Senate infighting really developed a year later during the formation of the operating budget.
Then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a member of the Finance Committee since he entered the Legislature in 2013, voted against the budget once a unilateral reduction of the annual dividend was included in the bill.
Dunleavy was followed in a later vote by Shelly Hughes of Palmer in rejecting a budget relying on reduced dividends (both left the majority caucus over those disagreements). Dunleavy eventually resigned his Senate seat in early 2018, and was elected Governor that fall.
The Senate organization of 2018 was marked by the divide over the dividend and the use of the Permanent Fund’s earnings. There were real attempts by the Senate Democrats to entice a handful of Republicans to cross over as they had done in 2007, and put them back into power.
Democrats’ efforts were stymied by the ability of Republicans to still remain 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 of a legislature to do its constitutionally mandated work.
This, combined with the election of a Republican governor and what appeared to be a Republican-dominated House, seemed enough of an enticement for Senators to hold their tongues and work together.
But that arrangement was in tatters by the summer of 2019, with Giessel expelling members of the caucus from key leadership positions and committee chairships over voting differences on the dividend. (Giessel, along with fellow member of leadership 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 made vacant by Congressman Don Young’s passing in March).
As 2021 began, it was unclear, until the first day of the legislative session, whether there would be a Republican or a Democratic-led Senate. And yet, when the gavel came down, it was Micciche of Soldotna who was made President by his peers, and who installed a caucus that demonstrated, at least on paper, that Republicans were in charge.
But if on paper the Republicans ruled the Senate, in practice they were a divided caucus to the point of paralysis. The majority caucus of the House and Senate traditionally meet at least once a week. In 2022, it was reported that the Senate majority held less than a handful of meetings. Reasons for this were unclear, though Senators said, on condition of anonymity, that the decision was Micciche’s attempt to manage the combustible relationships between members. Getting Senators who otherwise would not talk to each other in a confined space appeared a recipe for disaster, and Micciche was managing those dynamics.
Though some criticized what was perceived as fecklessness on the part of the Senate President, others saw the conundrum Micciche was placed: keep the Republicans together in a loose, uneasy alliance, or shatter the caucus and allow the Democrats to officially run the agenda.
Another key dynamic was the makeup of the Senate Democratic caucus. Past leaders included Sen. Johnny Ellis, a brilliant but bitter and ruthless politician who saw the role of the Democratic caucus to inflict misery on Republicans at all costs. Ellis was succeeded by Sen. Berta Gardner, whose years leading the caucus were spent in serving as a perpetual proxy for the Walker administration.
The election of Sen. Tom Begich as leader of the Senate Democrats marked a significant transition for the party’s prospects. Begich, the son of a former congressman and the brother to a former United States senator, was and is considered one of the chief political operatives of the Democratic party.
Representing a downtown bastion (Begich succeeded Ellis upon his retirement), the Democrats’ leader had a liberal base that would return him thanks to his political pedigree and reputation, allowing him leeway to work Republicans and the heft to hold back some of the bombastic members of his caucus, a departure from what Sen. Ellis encouraged and Sen. Gardner appeared unable to stop.
For the past two years, large parts of the Senate Republican caucus voted against their body’s final budget over differences in how it was crafted by its architect, Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka. In order to lift the budget off its floor, Sens. Stedman and Micciche relied, initially with some, eventually for all, of Sen. Begich’s caucus to pass it. This leverage afforded the Senate Democrats, and Begich in particular, an effective swing vote status in the impaired chamber.
This dynamic played itself out in the waning months of this year’s session. There is an old saying muttered in the Capitol that “it’s always 2 on 1.” The “3” in that equation are the House, the Senate, and the Governor. By May, the equation was set, and it was the Senate and Gov. Dunleavy’s Administration combining forces on issues such as a higher dividend, the reading bill, and crime, against a House majority that was dominated by members of the Bill Walker Caucus opposing any Republican initiative.
Once morning broke on May 19, the first time Alaskans were not facing a special session prospect in four years, the dam had broken over the Walker Caucus in the House.
The Permanent Fund Dividend was set at the largest amount in state history, though the energy rebate, funded by the Constitutional Budget Reserve, failed by a single vote (Walker Caucus member Rep. Grier Hopkins of Fairbanks casting that rejection, as his finger paused over the red or green button).
But the Senate Majority and Democratic Caucus appeared to have reached an agreement on bills that could pass, and most did, marking the 2022 session one of the more productive ones in recent memory.
Micciche’s retirement makes him the third consecutive Senate President to not come back after their term ended (though Micciche is leaving by his own volition while his two predecessors were defeated in their bids for re-election). The retirement of Tom Begich leaves a vacancy in the Democratic caucus along with a seat that will, it appears, be filled by a person who currently staffs for him.
With two leaders exiting, and the field of play very much undecided for most members of the Senate, what kind of organization will take shape is an open question.
Some politicos are betting on 2023 finally being the year the Democratic caucus is given the keys to majority power with the agreement of several Republicans. There is some credence to that. Unlike the House, which has almost a 100% turnover rate from 10 years ago, several members of the old bipartisan coalition are still around, including Sens. Stedman and Gary Stevens of Kodiak. And Rep. Matt Claman, a downtown Anchorage Democrat, is preparing an all-out assault for the seat held by Republican Sen. Mia Costello of Jewel Lake.
However, some of these key potential coalition members are in comparatively tough races. There is also the prospect of new entrants who will fill the strategic vacuum left by Tom Begich and Peter Micciche.
Tuckerman Babcock, a former chair 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 dealing with party platforms and policy agendas.
The massive potential for the Senate membership to be remade actually makes the “senior chamber,” unlike the House, the most potentially explosive arena for politics in Alaska this year.