For the first time in four years, Alaska’s Legislature came out of the Memorial Day holiday without a special session.
There were several factors for the Alaska Capitol emptying out after May 18, the last day under the state Constitution allowed the legislative session.
Alaska’s public finances, buoyed by high oil prices thanks to the Biden Administration destroying exploration in the United States and a war in Ukraine, are in surplus for the first time in nearly a decade. More money going around makes political deal-making much easier.
But another reason is this: Lawmakers, particularly in the Alaska House of Representatives, were exhausted from the combination of external pressure and internal squabbling that has marked the chamber since 2017. To most representatives, it was time to get out, both of session and, as the filing deadline looms, out of politics altogether.
Turnover is normal every two years and is a healthy component for cycling in new people with new ideas reflecting the views of voters. But 2022 is shaping up to be a real washout before the Alaskan public has had its say, with over a third of the Legislature looking at being gone before November’s elections.
The turmoil in the Legislature has been corrosive to many, but the past six years have been exceptionally brutal on the public and lawmakers, with the longest special sessions in history recorded, and record-level litigation between the branches of government. This is not a normal work environment, even for politics.
One factor has driven this dynamic more than any other: the rise and rule of what could be called the “Bill Walker Caucus.” It is not a formal caucus like that associated with a majority or minority group of lawmakers organized with leadership and committee assignments. It is not a longstanding regional group like the Bush Caucus or the Anchorage Caucus. It is not publicly centered around a policy, like the Agriculture Caucus, which was formed this year.
The Walker Caucus is an ad hoc group of lawmakers that have, for almost 10 years, served as a bulwark for the former and once again aspiring governor to maintain control of the levers of power in Juneau, and to stop any attempts to unwind the agenda of the Walker administration, which ended in scandal in 2018.
This is the chronicle of how this caucus came to be and, perhaps, how it looks to end.
The Walker Caucus has changed slightly since it first came out of the shadows in November of 2016, but it is characterized by the same flavors: a mostly Democratic base of legislators, long out of power and hungry for the clout that comes with being in the majority, combined with a few key crossover Republican lawmakers who get, in return for their turncoat action, the choicest positions of power.
Republicans who join the Walker Caucus Democrats have been called by members of their own caucus the “Big Office Caucus.” These two groups have held a glue that kept Republicans, despite outright majorities in the Legislature and Governor’s office since 2018, hamstrung from enacting their agenda.
When Bill Walker was elected in 2014, he faced daunting opposition from what appeared to be a united and unassailable front in both the Senate, under President Kevin Meyer, and in the House, under legendary Speaker Mike Chenault. That front was invigorated by a combination of Republicans feeling robbed by the manner in which Walker entered office, supported hand in hand with the Alice Rogoff-funded Anchorage (Dispatch) Daily News printing breathless headlines scandalizing Walker’s opponent, Gov. Sean Parnell. The mainstream media dropped the so-called scandal the very week after the election.
Most of the 2015 session was a bruising experience for the Walker Administration. After gutting much of the state government set up by the Parnell Administration, the new governor faced withering committee fire in both houses for three bruising months. A near record of Walker’s appointees went down in confirmation, and his cabinet had several close escapes, including his Attorney General.
The gasline, the key obsession of Walker’s, consumed the 2015 session and ended in a stalemate with Walker vetoing bills that would constrain his power over the state corporation overseeing gas projects, but losing key funding for his plans.
By 2016, the Walker administration was now pushing a decidedly Democratic fiscal agenda, proposing a record number of taxes including attempting to rewrite the newly establishes oil tax system that voters had just upheld. Every single proposal, including rewriting the Permanent Fund dividend formula, went down to defeat by a single vote in the House of Representatives. The effort to rewrite the dividend formula enjoyed large, unconventional support from some of the state’s most powerful interest groups across the political spectrum, from the largest labor unions to several large private sector trade associations.
In response, Walker instigated the defining act of his gubernatorial administration: He vetoed the 2016 Dividend down to a number he considered “reasonable.” Overnight, candidates for office were defined about where they stood with Walker’s budgetary action, and where the lines broke on that response did not follow conventional party affiliation.
That break was made clear in November of 2016, when a majority of the House of Representatives announced they had enough members to have a ruling caucus. For the first time in a generation, Democrats would comprise the majority. But it was the Republicans who came into the fold that made this shift possible.
Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, the former Democratish Republican who once represented Kodiak and then East Anchorage, orchestrated a coup that placed her in the powerful Rules Committee chair, allowing her to, literally, write the rules of House procedure and how bills became law. (LeDoux is now under indictment for election fraud).
Joining Rep. LeDoux in power was Homer Democratish Republican Rep. Paul Seaton, who finally had the chance to write the state’s budget in the manner he saw fit and was constantly stopped from doing. Rep. Louise Stutes, a Kodiak Democratish Republican, also joined. These votes allowed Bryce Edgmon, at that point a lifelong Democrat, to become the first Democrat Speaker of the House since Rep. Ben Grussendorf of Sitka — back when the Soviet Union still existed.
The agenda of this rail-thin majority became apparent: Sync up with the Bill Walker administration and pressure the Senate, then under the presidency of Pete Kelly of Fairbanks, to capitulate to taxes, enact whimsy-driven Permanent Fund dividend reductions, budgetary pressure, and other types of bills. Although the Kelly-led Senate did have a sizable portion of its members who supported rewriting the dividend formula, it was vehemently opposed to doing so under threat of taxes, and without a spending cap. An income tax passed the House and was pushed by the Walker Administration, only to die ignominiously on the Senate floor in 2017.
At the 11th hour of 2018, the Legislature passed a law setting a limit on the total amount of money that could be expended from the Permanent Fund’s earnings.
Crucially and unfortunately, the dividend formula itself was left unchanged as the Legislature, and Walker, went to the ballot box in November seeking another term. Walker, and several members of the coalition including Rep. Seaton, were either unseated or withdrew before the voters could reject them (the coalition also lost three of its newest members of its caucus for sexual misconduct).
The election of Mike Dunleavy as governor, with several Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate cementing a solid majority in the Legislature, promised an opportunity to expunge the Walker Caucus from its perch in the Capitol, and to undo the damage from the previous four years.
Reps. Chuck Kopp and Jennifer Johnston of Anchorage, and the late Rep. Gary Knopp of Soldotna had other ideas. With Knopp holding out to support a Republican Speaker of the House, the chamber remained deadlocked for the longest time in state history as the embattled Walker Caucus fought to retain its rule of the chamber. The impasse was broken by Knopp, Kopp, and Johnston, who all voted to make Edgmon, who registered as a no-party candidate, once more Speaker. Rep. Tammie Wilson of Fairbanks also temporarily joined the majority in exchange for the gavel on the Finance Committee.
The Walker Caucus was firmly established in the House once more, with powerful allies and newcomer surrogates such as Zack Fields, an Anchorage downtown Democrat who also worked in the Walker administration under Heidi Drygas, the then Labor Commissioner (Drygas is Walker’s current running mate). Under the gavels of furious Democrats and scorned Republicans, the Dunleavy administration was savaged in committees at every turn.
This climate of hostility peaked at several moments, including the character assassination on the floor of a joint session of several of Dunleavy’s appointments, such as Karl Johnstone to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, and Bob Griffin to the Alaska Board of Education.
Former Walker administration officials, such as Chief of Staff Scott Kendall, began testifying in committees against Dunleavy officials, an unprecedented action for senior personnel.
Then the lawsuits began, first on from the legislature trying to get court approval for its previous forward funding of education. This would kick off a record number of lawsuits between the three branches of government that continues to this day.
Opposition to Dunleavy’s budget vetoes triggered a recall effort enflamed by among others, prominent members of the Walker Caucus at rallies in 2019. The political brushfire was only extinguished by a plane arriving from Wuhan, China, in January of 2020, plunging Alaska and the rest of the world into a Covid-induced convulsion.
When voters went to the polls in August and November of 2020, the recipients of the greatest rebukes were members of the Walker Caucus. Kopp, Johnston, LeDoux, and several others were trounced out (Gary Knopp passed in an airplane collision before his election, and Tammie Wilson resigned from office). Perhaps, finally, the Walker Caucus members would be in them minority as, once again, a majority of legislators in both bodies were Republicans.
By February 2021, the House was once again deadlocked and unable to organize. The dam broke when Rep. Kelly Merrick, an Eagle River Republican, crossed in exchange for becoming co-chair of the Finance Committee. What was different this time was who was in the Speaker’s chair. Instead of Edgmon, who by accounts was seeking a third consecutive term, Stutes of Kodiak was thrust into the key leadership post by Merrick’s decisive vote.
The Merrick move placed a Republican over a caucus of mostly Democrats.
It also was the first split of members of the Walker Caucus. Edgmon, a fervent Walker supporter, had apparently been outmaneuvered by Fields, who by several accounts orchestrated the deal. The placement of Stutes over Edgmon touched off a rivalry between the two that resulted in the majority being called the “Caucus of Two Speakers” with Edgmon, now rules chair and sitting on finance, harrying Stutes’ governing for two years. At times, the two didn’t speak to each other for weeks.
One of the key characteristics of all the Walker Caucuses was its thinness. None of the majorities enjoyed mandates with comfortable majorities in any of the years it was in power. Chenault, at the height of his power as speaker, could boast a caucus with 30 out of the chamber’s 40 members. This edginess led to a rough dynamic of progressive Democrats in the majority but a sliver of Republicans in leadership.
The result was that nothing of substance passed for most of those years. When Walker was out of power, this defensive shield against Dunleavy was useful, as useful as the shield initially was against Walker in his administration’s first two years. But after three years and endless special sessions, the cracks of inaction showed in the wall of a caucus whose only reason for existence was opposition to the current Governor.
Those cracks opened up this year, as the worn Walker talking points of “unaffordable dividends” evaporated under record oil prices and revenues that swelled the public coffers. When the Legislature gaveled out this year, voting for the largest dividend in history along with part of an energy rebate, it was the core of the Walker Caucus who voted down the second half of that payment, managing to kill it by a single vote.
It is impossible to tell what will occur this year during the massive election cycle ahead. But Bill Walker benefitted from a House that for the last six years defied political gravity in pursuit of an agenda he crafted. The majority of key lawmakers who instigated the Walker Caucus have either been thrown out of office or retired. Whatever comes this year, one thing is clear: Voters have their eyes clearly on Bill Walker and his surrogates, and the caucus they fashioned in the Legislature to subvert the will of the majority of Alaskans.