A handful of House members in session wasn’t enough today. Newly minted Speaker Louise Stutes of Kodiak had to call a technical session just nine minutes before the Alaska House of Representatives was scheduled to meet.
The only order of business was to gavel out.
Already, three key members of the House had headed for the airport — Republicans Kelly Merrick, Steve Thompson, and Bart LeBon. Others were on the Friday afternoon flight north, leaving Stutes and her Democrat surrogates wandering the halls of the Capitol, looking for another Republican to poach into the new Stutes-Democrat majority.
Stutes couldn’t get a Committee on Committees together to meet, so no report was issued with the names of committee chairs. Without committees, there is no organization, just a Speaker who replaced the Speaker Pro Tem. Stutes couldn’t get any of the Republicans to give her the time of day — the ones who remained in Juneau were busy caucusing all day.
Stutes had, on Thursday, become Speaker after a surprise secret side deal by Democrat Rep. Zack Fields and Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick was crafted. Republicans didn’t know about the deal on Thursday until they were walking down the hallways to the House Chambers.
Democrats had only learned of the play on the evening prior. When the nomination was made and the vote called, Merrick was in the first group of legislators to hit the green button. Among the last to vote were Josiah Patkotak and DeLena Johnson. Johnson is often one of the last to vote, while Patkotak was serving as Speaker Pro Tem.
Patkotak seemed ready for the change as he was reading from a script to execute the play.
Stutes, a Republican, has caucused with the Democrats for several years. Must Read Alaska has learned that even she was unaware of the deal between Fields and Merrick. Merrick, of District 14 Eagle River, became the 21st vote.
“This is the most dysfunctional House that I’ve seen,” said a longtime observer. “You’ve got a majority that has the far, far left in it, with Geran Tarr, Ivy Spohnholz, Liz Snyder, and Zack Fields, and then you have moderate people like Chris Tuck, who are stuck with these people who are like having four David Eastmans for the Democrats.” (Eastman has in the past been difficult for Republicans to form a caucus with because he is often uncompromising.)
Merrick stated in a press release that she was not, in fact, joining the Democrat caucus, but she slipped out of the side door after the vote in the House Chambers, put her phone on mute, and then headed for the airport before daylight. Republicans remaining in the building fought rumors that Merrick had, in fact, joined the Democrat caucus and it’s unclear if that was a bit of disinformation floated by the Democrats to force her over to their caucus.
Fields, who closed the deal with Merrick, was a longtime employee of the Laborers Union 341, where Merrick’s husband is the Business Manager. Fields and the Merricks are close friends.
A 21-member caucus is considered unstable because any one member can hold the entire caucus hostage. But as of Friday night, there is no majority caucus. There is a Speaker and 39 House members who are in even worse disarray than they were before she became Speaker.