Rep. Kelly Merrick, who represents one of Alaska’s most solid Republican districts in Eagle River, made it final on Monday — she was joining the mostly Democrat coalition.
Led by Rep. Louise Stutes as Speaker, the coalition is made up of all Democrats or undeclared Democrats, and Stutes and Merrick, who are Republicans.
It ended a weekend of dramatic tension for House Republicans, who learned on Thursday that Merrick was leaving their caucus.
Merrick confused the matter by issuing a press release last week that said she was not joining the Democrat coalition.
“To be clear, I have not joined the Alaska House Coalition. However, like most Alaskans, I have been frustrated by taking the same fruitless votes day after day and I felt we could no longer afford to delay extending the Governor’s emergency disaster declaration, crafting a fiscally conservative budget, and passing the construction jobs bill,” Merrick wrote, referring to a disaster declaration that did not, in fact, extend, and a bond measure that the governor wants to put before voters this year to address infrastructure needs and jobs.
“Speaker Stutes has served many years in the Legislature, has personal relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and is committed to bringing people together to tackle issues facing Alaska,” she wrote.
In fact, Stutes had tried to convince Republicans to make her Speaker of a Republican-led coalition, but they consider her untrustworthy. Many of them report that Stutes has treated them badly during her many years of working against them, and she was not able to close that deal in recent weeks.
By Monday afternoon, Merrick had been awarded a coveted spot leading Finance, which means she has, in fact, joined the coalition, although there may be some terms she has established with the Democrats. Most likely, she will be the co-chair for the Capital Budget, which will please her union allies, including her husband, Joey Merrick, head of the Laborers Local 341 Union in Anchorage. Bryce Edgmon is the other do-chair of Finance and that indicates he was key to the negotiation to bring Merrick over. These are the coveted seats in the Legislature.
The coalition moved Merrick’s seat in the chamber away from her Republican friends Rep. Sara Rasmussen and Laddie Shaw, to have her positioned next to Democrat Rep. Zack Fields, who is credited with courting her over to the Democrat-led coalition. Until last year at least, Fields worked for Merrick’s husband as a business development director at the union, and may still hold a position with the union; the disclosure report is not on file.
The Committee on Committees was announced by Stutes on Monday. Often, it will have two members from the minority caucus, who are there to represent the interests of the members who will be awarded minority seats on committees. The Committee on Committees is made up of Speaker Stutes, with Reps. Merrick, Neal Foster, Chris Tuck and Bryce Edgmon, and minority members Reps. Sara Rasmussen and Mike Cronk, both Republicans.
In what is an unusual twist, both Merrick and Stutes are Republicans, which gives Republicans an actual majority on the Committee on Committees. But in actuality, Stutes has always favored and voted with Democrats, and so the majority Republican representation is a mirage.
The rest of committee assignments will have to wait. Stutes and Merrick are trying to tempt other Republicans to build out her coalition, which now stands at 21, with a minority caucus at 19.
The current minority strength may make that difficult, because a 19-member minority is considered powerful, and a caucus of 21 is considered unstable, because any single majority member can become a hostage-taker on issues important to him or her.
Merrick’s district is bright red, with 6,039 registered Republicans and just 1,821 registered Democrats.
Merrick received praise from many Democrat lawmakers and politicos, such as Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, a hard Democrat, who thanked her for rising above party politics to join the coalition.