Give Me More Power

Yesterday, Rep. Gary Knopp (Republican-Kenai) declared he wanted to create a “counterweight” of Republican and Democrat legislators to oppose Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s agenda. One item he singled out in particular was Dunleavy’s support for constitutionally protecting the Permanent Fund Dividend. In a press conference in February, Rep. Knopp declared that the state could do what it wanted with the PFD, including using it to fund state agencies instead of distributing it to the people. Despite running in a conservative district, no candidate ran against Knopp this year. He was elected without opposition.

I’m honored that Rep. Knopp chose to single me out as the one legislator who was unacceptable to be part of his “counterweight” to Gov. Dunleavy. I only wish that all of our other Republican legislators had made that list as well.

It is likely that some Alaskans voted for Republican legislators (including Knopp) this year assuming that those Republican legislators would support a conservative agenda put forward by Gov. Dunleavy. On that point, they would be sorely mistaken. In too many cases, political candidates choose a party (or to run independent) based on what is most likely to get them elected, instead of where they stand on the issues. Voters should always look closely at candidates before casting their ballot.

Already, some have attributed Rep. Knopp’s recent announcement as an empty threat designed merely to increase his leverage when it comes time to pick positions of power in the legislature. Whether his announcement is to be taken literally, or more skeptically, I am honored that he thought to mention me as the legislator least likely to be on board with his agenda.

This week is a pivotal time for legislators heading down to Juneau. After every election, the campaign to consolidate power in Juneau goes into overdrive. The push to consolidate power never entirely subsides of course, but at certain key times (like right after an election) it reaches a fevered pitch. “Give Me More Power” is the rallying cry of the Juneau Swamp, and in no place is this pursued more transparently than in the state legislature.

I recently met with a legislator from another state who is observing this same phenomenon in his state as well. To be fair, it is a staple of every state legislature. But in no state is the drive to consolidate power pursued with more reckless abandon than here in Alaska. The stories that take place here in Alaska are the stuff that legislators in most other states could only dream of.

On Election Day two years ago, Alaskans elected Republican majorities in the state house and senate. But on election night, three Republicans (LeDoux, Stutes and Seaton) from strongly Republican districts decided to cast their votes instead to elect Democrat leadership in the state house (picture Don Young, instead of voting for Paul Ryan, voting instead to elect Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House and you have a pretty good idea of what happened in Juneau last year).

These three legislators cried “Give Me More Power” and their request was granted. They gave Democrats control of the Alaska House of Representatives, and were rewarded handsomely by their Democrat colleagues with positions of power which they still hold today. Holding a position of power in the legislature is no small thing. It means access to larger campaign donations come election time, and the ability to block legislation, forcing other legislators to come to the negotiating table.

Two years ago, voters elected a majority of 21 Republicans in the state house only to see three Republican legislators trade away that majority in exchange for positions of power. This year, voters have elected a majority of 23 Republicans. And this year, as before, three Republicans have indicated that they are willing to trade away that Republican majority in exchange for more power.

When there were only 21 Republicans elected, that would have been enough to elect some number of Democrat leaders to power, but with 23 Republicans today that simply leaves a 20-20 split between the 40 legislators in the Alaska state house.

A Republican legislator from a strongly Republican district declaring publicly his desire to create a “counterweight” to the popular agenda of a newly elected Republican governor would be unheard of in many other states. But here in Alaska there is a much lower expectation that legislators will act according to the wishes of their constituents.

Some attribute this to the distance between Juneau and the rest of the state. Certainly that is a huge factor. The ability to confront a legislator face-to-face immediately before or after a vote is something every lobbyist can do. Not so for the vast majority of Alaskan voters.

Some attribute the disconnect between legislators and voters more to the logistical difficulties of holding office and the small number of candidates willing to leave their homes, families and careers to head to Juneau for six months or more at a time. These challenges are real, and help explain why legislators in many parts of the state face no challengers come election time. This is true of some legislators representing liberal districts as well as some representing very conservative districts, such as the one Rep. Knopp represents.

While these are all factors, perhaps the greatest reason legislators turn on their constituents in Alaska is because there are too few people willing and able to keep voters informed about the decisions being made in Juneau. Many Alaskans are blissfully unaware of the way their “business” is conducted in the state capital. Case in point, battlelines are currently being drawn in the legislature, and leadership is being chosen. But the lines that legislators are being asked to line up behind have more to do with power and influence rather than support or opposition to particular policies that will actually help the people of Alaska. This has to change.

Rep. David Eastman has served in the Alaska State House representing the Mat-Su since 2017; He ran on a platform of fighting for genuine conservative reform, fiscally and socially, and remains committed to delivering on that promise.