Alaska House elects Wasilla Republican Cathy Tilton as speaker

Jan. 18—JUNEAU — The Alaska House of Representatives elected Wasilla Republican Rep. Cathy Tilton as speaker on Wednesday, supported by all 21 House Republicans, two Democrats and three independents.

But the 26-14 vote for speaker did not match the membership of the new Republican-led majority caucus, Tilton said after the vote. After the House adjourned, Tilton told reporters that the majority caucus would be composed of 19 Republicans and four members representing rural Alaska — independent Reps. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham and Josiah Patkotak of Utqiagvik and Democratic Reps. Neal Foster of Nome and Conrad "C.J." McCormick of Bethel.

The vote for speaker took place on the second day of the session, establishing a Republican-dominated House majority caucus for the first time since 2017 and bringing to an end several weeks of negotiations, posturing and rumors. Until the successful speaker vote, no legislative work could occur.

Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes, the former House speaker, is not a member of the majority caucus. Neither is controversial Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman, Tilton said. Stutes and Eastman both voted in favor of Tilton to be speaker.

Stutes was not immediately available for comment after the House adjourned to speak about her plans. Eastman, who was not invited to join the caucus, said he would be open to joining a Republican majority, but he didn't think the current caucus qualified.

"How would it be a Republican caucus if it's got Democrats in it?" he asked.

Eastman recently faced a court battle after a former constituent said his membership in the far right Oath Keepers made him ineligible to hold office in Alaska. An Anchorage judge ruled in Eastman's favor, paving the Wasilla lawmaker's way to remain in the House, but some other House Republicans said earlier this week they were not interested in caucusing with him.

[Tuesday: House in disarray as Legislature begins session]

Edgmon said after the floor vote that the membership of the majority is "a work in progress." Tilton declined to answer what promises, if any, were made to the Bush Caucus members to bring them into the majority.

Rural legislators who make up the Bush Caucus have often joined the majority, regardless of which party is in charge. Foster and Edgmon both served for years in Republican-led caucuses, but more recently they have held leadership positions in the bipartisan House majority coalition, including with Edgmon serving for four years as speaker presiding over a majority composed mostly of Democrats.

Other key leadership positions in the new House majority were not announced Wednesday. Tilton said that would take place on Thursday.

The No. 1 priority for the new majority caucus would be dealing with the fiscal stability of the state, she said.

"I want to let every member of the House know that it is my intent to treat every member fairly in the body and bring the respect and decorum to this house that it deserves," Tilton said before she was elected as speaker. "I think every one of you know that it is in the best interest of the Legislature that we follow the rules, we work in a fair process, and that we treat each other with respect."

Anchorage independent Rep. Calvin Schrage, a veteran of the outgoing bipartisan majority coalition, was chosen to serve as minority leader shortly after the House adjourned. Schrage is starting his third year in office.

"We look forward to working with fellow legislators on our priorities, including meaningful additions to the Base Student Allocation to ensure all of Alaska's students have access to quality education, bolstering recruitment and retention of Alaska's workers, investing in critical infrastructure, and charting a long-term fiscal plan that will set Alaska on a course for prosperity," he said in a prepared statement. "We are committed to working together with other members of the House, the Senate, and all Alaskans to accomplish these goals."

The vote on Tilton's nomination came after Rep. Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat, nominated Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge for the position but then withdrew the nomination. Fields later said he expected to be in the minority, but that members of the minority "will exercise a lot of power," including on the prospect of increasing education funding, given the diverse makeup of the majority and different factions among its members.

"I haven't heard the new majority articulate policy priorities, but I think it's pretty clear a majority of legislators in both chambers from all parties do support raising the BSA and restoring defined benefits," said Fields, referring in part to the newly formed bipartisan coalition in the Senate that has listed education funding and retirement benefits for public employees as some of its top priorities. "These are our two biggest challenges this year and we have to work together to get that done, working across parties and caucuses."

[Alaska lawmakers say increasing education funding is a top priority]

Some other members of the House who previously served in a bipartisan majority made up primarily of Democrats appeared open to serving in the Republican-controlled majority.

Asked if he saw himself joining the majority, Rep. Dan Ortiz, a Ketchikan independent who voted in favor of Tilton, said he'd be interested in joining the majority but "it remains to be seen" if he will.

Juneau Democratic Rep. Andi Story voted in favor of Tilton for speaker, but she has not been invited to join the majority caucus. Story said she voted for Tilton because she was trying to show an appetite for bipartisanship after it became obvious that Tilton would win.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Story said. "To me, it's a signal that I'm here ready to work."

After the House adjourned, Legislators quickly returned to their offices, and the corridors of the Capitol were largely empty. The new majority caucus members held a meeting in the afternoon behind closed doors with key committee assignments not yet announced.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson said he was disappointed by Wednesday's vote for speaker after serving in the bipartisan majority for the past six years. He said he felt dismayed that members of the Bush Caucus had decided to join the Republican-dominated majority but that there was an upside to serving in the minority.

"I'm disappointed but relieved, because now I'm on a team where I can just let it fly," Josephson said.