How we got here: The Bill Walker Caucus created chaos that led to this year’s one-third turnover in Legislature

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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. 

36 COMMENTS

  1. So glad you are there, Suzanne, to make sure we are informed as to the goings-on in Juneau. Now if we could sneak in and let the uninformed in on what is really happening.

    • He gave me the creeps from the beginning and never had my vote. His singular focus on “his” pipeline, was a red flag for me, confirmed when he was essentially trying to leverage the PFD as collateral to the Chinese. Fortunately we have other choices this time around and I hope Bill will NOT make it into the final 4!

  2. Hopefully he will not win this election for Governor and go away forever. His dream of a gaslne is his own dream. Alaska will get a gas line when the oil companies want one and not a minute before.. Between Walker and Palin Alaska has wasted to much time and money on this project

  3. Calling a cult a caucus does not make it legitimate.

    November represents the opportunity for the real working people of Alaska to take back so much (but probably not all) of that which has been stolen from us.

    If this “no-dividend-for you – everything for my pipedream” mob gets to sent to Juneau the least they could do is mask up. Wear BLACK masks as thieves traditionall wore with price. Surely they are not lacking in pride at what they’ve gotten away with up to now!

  4. Follow the money. It is all about getting into the fund and funneling money to those in power. What a shell game.

  5. So glad you keep us up what’s going on in Juneau. I hope Walker doesn’t get elected and rest of the Juneau turncoats.

  6. Keep an eye out for the Senate. One more RINO or Democrat, and they will be able to organize a Walker majority

    • We understand that God is watching but let us pray that God is watching very carefully! Every now and then evil must be challenged!

  7. Really great review and summation of the past eight years in the Legislature. Thanks, Suzanne.
    We tend to forget all about the scoundrels who gummed-up the works of an otherwise Republican controlled House. Knopp, Kopp, etc ….All a bunch of phonies who eventually met their demise one way or another. Meanwhile, Bill Walker thinks he can still survive the voter’s wrath coming his way as a pedophile, child-sex enabler. Or, as a Communist Chinese sympathizer and traitor. Or, as THE thief who stole every Alaskan’s full statutory PFD.
    Oh yeah. It’s all coming out.

    • Can’t wait to hear more about Bill Walker’s cover-up of the pedophile scandle involving his “soul partner,” Byron Mallot. Walker and his lapdog, Scott Kendall, kept it out of the news. Alaska news dailies had nothing to say. Walker knew that his lieutenant was trying to hook-up with underaged girls at the Capitol. Walker will be directly confronted with this question during the campaign. He better have answers, too. Because this issue is not going away.

      • Thomas Griffen;
        You did mean Byron Mallot pedophile, not Bill Walker, correct? We all know now that Byron Mallot was a pedophile. But I don’t think Bill Walker was a pedophile. What do you mean by pedophile-enabler? Wouldn’t that also mean he was a pedophile? Just asking?

  8. Thanks Suzanne, well said and timely. Let’s go Brandon Bill and ALL of his cronies. They want to make us all slaves.

  9. The pendulum is ready to swing in the right direction for once. Imagine them knowing we want a budget in 90 days like we said; we want repubs to be pro-Constitution, standing up for property rights always, fair and equal representation, education regarding our US Constitution, due process, the judiciary to stay in their lane and keeping the people and the US Constitution paramount no new extraneous unconstitutional writings ever! ever!

    • Is it? The State SCOTUS gave Anchorage a new Senate district and rank choice voting may give leftist the ability to elect more rinos

  10. Oh yeah, it was Dunleavy who vetoed Walker’s China deal, thus saving the Permanent Fund. If he had not done that, seeing China’s predatory lending results in other countries, Alaskans might not have had a Permanent Fund now. Or maybe they would own the natural gas Alaskans need to heat their homes in the winter. Pretty scary.

  11. Bill Walker’s leadership:

    Reporter: “When did the Governor first become aware that his close political ally and Lt. Governor had been involved in potentially criminal acts with underage women?”

    Communications Director: “We are really trying to protect everyone’s privacy right now…”

    Most Alaskans will not be making the same mistake twice with this guy.

    • @JMark,
      Sir, pedophilia behavior is not normally correctable. It tends to run latent for awhile, but the problem itself never gets fully resolved. Those people who place themselves around pedophiles are usually in deniability and lash out at the accuser. Oftentimes they seek revenge against the accuser as a means to further enable the pedophile. Is pedophilia enabling also a mental sickness? Most certainly.

        • These old fossils running around thinking they are still viable candidates is too funny. Does Mrs. Walker carry the Depends in her purse when she is out with him?

          • Only when Bill Walker reads “Must Read Alaska” does he starting tinkling in his pants.

  12. This is spot on journalism! The way you’ve recounted the historical circumstances up the present, of the shenanigans behind the curtain that is Juneau. Tracks very well with my recollection, but your prose is more exciting, and factual, to read. Juneau’s ethos (and perhaps that of all long serving politicians) is that “the public’s memory is only 24 months long at best.” Considering population turnover in this state, I hope you continue to shine your pragmatic light in to the shadows so that we may see and recall those who have breach our trust. Keep up the Great Work!

  13. Or could it be that we have a current governor who behaves more like the Wizard of Oz than a true leader?

  14. I’ll believe all this is over when Walker is defeated, every member of the House is turned out, and we go two years with a statutory PFD. Not one moment sooner.

    Walker must have something amazing on people. Truly amazing. Every time we flip people, either the new people cave or existing members take their turn screwing us.

    Until we know what it is, this will just happen again and again and again.

  15. Suzanne, an excellent summary of the political shenanigans of the past few years. Well done!

    It makes one’s faith in our government be shaken and also gives pause to those considering a run for office to be a part of it.

  16. Excellent account of past and present. Binkley chooses to ignore fact telling.
    Politics becomes Dirty…….and Must be confronted. MRAK does so.
    Moral citizens must engage dirty politics.

  17. Bill Walker is on his swan song, revenge tour. He’s a pissed-off old man because things didn’t go well for him the last time. He wants to make a come-back so he can punish Alaskans one more time. Avoid Bill Walker like the plague.

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