“If You Like Your Staff, You Can Keep Your Staff” — Political Extortion in the Alaska Legislature

(Alaska State Capitol front steps (from right to left) Jerad McClure, David Eastman, Pam Goode)

This morning, after earlier receiving an ironclad commitment from the speaker of the house that if I like my staff I can keep my staff, my legislative aide, Pam Goode, was fired.

A Democrat political activist and former Begich staffer came to the office to gloat and to mock her in person and congratulate her on her “retirement”. This is the kind of treatment that conservative legislators and their aides all too often receive in our state capitol. And no, it wasn’t Democrat legislators who reneged on the agreement made less than 48 hours earlier and fired my aide, it was our so-called Republican legislators who recently joined with Democrats in the house bipartisan caucus.

After working in my office for more than two years, Pam was made to turn in her keys first thing this morning. In addition to managing my daily calendar and assisting me with state fiscal policy, Pam has also taken most of the daily telephone calls and emails to our office over the past two years, and she has done a fabulous job working to stay on top of it all.

As someone who has never been afraid to burn the midnight oil, and often has, Pam is leaving behind some very big shoes for Jerad and I to try to fill. I would like to apologize in advance if you reach out to our office this session and there is a delay in our getting back to you. Please know that we will get back with you as soon as we can.

In truth, legislative aides like Pam and Jerad do most of the work that takes place in the capitol building. When legislators preside over a committee hearing, or during a floor session, they are usually following a script prepared for them ahead of time by an aide. When something not on the script happens, and there isn’t an aide present to help, legislators often have to call a time-out as they struggle to sort out what to do next. Firing a legislator’s staff is designed to cut them off at the knees. Even seasoned legislators would be up a creek without a paddle without the daily help of their staff.

It is for this reason that threatening to fire (or preventing the hiring of) a legislator’s staff, is such an effective way to apply leverage to an individual legislator. Most legislators could not conceive of making it through the day without their staff, and the idea that someone might fire their staff is absolutely petrifying. For the more humane legislators, the idea of an aide and his or her family losing their livelihood is often leverage enough to convince a legislator to rethink a particular policy position. And that is how decisions are made in Juneau today, not through compelling arguments, but often through a combination of carrots and sticks. The lobbyists win, they have the biggest carrots. Members of the public lose, they have fewer carrots and are often last to break out the sticks.

Legislative aides are required to commit to be available to work seven days a week per the legislature’s employment policy, leaving little opportunity to work a second job. Most legislative aides who work for Republican legislators do not live in Juneau year-round, which means being uprooted from their community and traveling to Juneau for the legislative session each year. Once in Juneau, many aides are obliged to sign a 4-month lease for lodging, sometimes longer. It is no small affair to commit to working in a legislator’s office, travel to Juneau, secure a lease, and then be told one week later that you have been fired because someone didn’t like a conservative policy decision made by your boss. And yes, such punishments almost universally fall on conservative lawmakers and their staff.

The moral to every story from the swamp is the same; keep the money flowing if you know what’s good for you. Legislators from conservative districts are the one potential fly in that ointment, and in Juneau they are always outnumbered and the constituents they represent are at least 600 miles away.

Sen. Lora Reinbold had her staff fired after honoring the will of her constituents and voting against an unsustainably large state operating budget. My own senator, Sen. Mike Dunleavy, had his staff fired for the same reason. Some will say that these legislators had pledged ahead of time to vote in the affirmative and, by not doing so, they deserved to be punished. With such talking points, legislators attempt to justify extorting one another for their votes in Alaska. It isn’t right. In most other states it would be patently illegal. Why isn’t it in Alaska?

Let me be clear, the firing of my staff is a black and white violation of the Employment Policy of the Alaska Legislature, which states that “Employees will be selected by and serve at the pleasure of the individual legislator”. I was not consulted on whether my aide would be fired, or which of my aides would lose their job. That decision was made by another legislator on behalf of members of the bipartisan caucus. I learned that Pam was to be fired at the exact same time she did, in an email from Rep. Craig Johnson.

Today’s action in firing my aide also comes after the speaker of the house assured me in no uncertain terms that my staff would not be touched. On Tuesday, January 17th, while she was still seeking my vote for speaker of the house, Rep. Cathy Tilton assured me and another legislator that both of my aide’s jobs would be safe “unless they commit felonies”. With that commitment firmly in place, I agreed to protect her staff, and the staff of other legislators, from being fired as well. We voted to elect her speaker of the house the following day, Wednesday, January 18th.

On Thursday, only one day after her election as speaker of the house, the House Rules Committee, on behalf of the bipartisan caucus which she now leads, established a new policy requiring that one of my two aides be summarily fired. Every legislator in the capitol building is permitted at least two staff to help run their legislative offices during the legislative session. Every legislator except one.

Pam is the only aide at the capitol being fired under the new policy.

The 19 Republicans in the bipartisan caucus allowed me one alternative. If I joined the Democrat-led caucus my staffer would not be fired.

I did not join the Democrat-led caucus, and now my aide has been fired.

The intended effect of this new policy on conservative legislators is clear; either allow yourself to be extorted by the bipartisan caucus, or you and your staff will be punished. For the next two years, any legislator who wishes to rethink their membership in the bipartisan caucus (or, as a Republican, wishes to withdraw from the Democrat-led caucus) will now be faced with the unmistakable threat of having their staff fired if they leave the caucus, even if they do so at the request of their constituents.

I represent nearly 19,000 Mat-Su residents. When those in the bipartisan caucus ask me to “help them pass the budget”, there is only so much I can do to help at this point. I cannot commit in advance to intend to vote for a bill that hasn’t been written yet, and that my constituents and I haven’t seen. While this position may be a no-brainer to constituents in the Mat-Su, to many of my colleagues in the bipartisan caucus this is now seen as an extreme position, worthy of punishment.

To those who declare the necessity of legislators being able to gather in secret caucus meetings to hash out particulars on state policy, I would point you not only to current state law which forbids such gatherings, but also to legislatures in many other states which have discovered ways to pass budgets and move forward state policy goals without resorting to Open Meetings violations that exclude public observance and engagement. We are the elected legislators, but the legislative process still belongs to the people. This position also, while supported by the vast majority of voters in my district, is also said to be so extreme as to now separate me from every other Republican in the bipartisan majority caucus.

To those who have joined the bipartisan majority caucus, I have this to say:

What you have done, at my expense, and at the expense of my staff and the Alaskans in my district, is criminal.

For those wondering what effect this latest round of punishment will have on my commitment to those who sent me to Juneau, rest assured, even if I have to stand alone to do it, I will still have your back. Please pray for our elected leaders in Juneau, especially for those new to Juneau who are only now discovering the extent of the corruption for the first time. Pray that they discover ways to bear up under it, despite the intense pressure to cave.

If your legislator is a member of the newly formed bipartisan majority now running things in the state house, they especially need to hear from you.

The list of those who joined the bipartisan caucus in the house is found here.

The list of those who joined the bipartisan caucus in the senate is found here.