For rural Alaska legislators, local issues trumped party interests and upended the state House.

The four members of the Alaska Bush Caucus, (from left to right) Reps. Neal Foster, D-Nome; CJ McCormick, D-Bethel; Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; and Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, were sworn in on Tuesday, January 17, 2023, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. On Thursday, three of the four voted for Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, as House speaker. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Last week, rural members of the Alaska House of Representatives ended the six-year reign of a predominantly Democratic coalition, shifting control of the House to a predominantly Republican coalition.

By joining 19 of the House’s 21 Republicans, the four members of the rural House “Bush Caucus” avoided the kind of leadership gridlock that plagued the House in 2019 and 2021. They also put themselves and their new co-workers in a position to dictate the flow of legislation and items in the next state budget.

In interviews and public statements, the four legislators: Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; Representative Neal Foster, D-Nome; Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel; and Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, said their decision came after dozens of alternative proposals failed and came the night before Rep. Cathay Tilton, R-Wasilla, was elected House speaker.

“After many hundreds of hours of discussions with other legislators, the team made the decision to accept the offer to join an organization to be in a position of influence,” Edgmon said.

As a step

“It’s always a tough decision,” Foster said.

Negotiations began the day after Election Day, Foster said, with calls between potential members of the Alaska House of Representatives.

November election results showed 21 Republicans elected to the 40-person House, but Republicans refused to work with Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, or Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.

That left them with 19 votes, two short of the number needed for majority control of the Alaska House of Representatives. The multi-party House coalition, in charge for the past six years, also lacked the votes needed for control.

In private phone calls, text messages, Zoom chats and in-person meetings, lawmakers tried to convince each other of dozens of possible and competing House majorities.

An attempt by first-time lawmakers to organize a bipartisan majority failed, though it received attention on Alaska Landmine, a political website. Quieter ideas put forward by Republicans, Democrats and independents also failed.

From the beginning, the independent Patkotak was seen as a potential ally of a republican organization. His Christian faith, his interest in oil and gas development and his passion for hunting seemed a better fit with the Republican crowd, he said.

Some Republicans believed he was close to joining them in 2021 and hoped to win him over in 2023. It wasn’t a sure thing, Patkotak said.

He did not want to split the Bush Caucus, which could have diluted rural Alaska’s political power in the House, and he wanted to see if the Republicans were prepared to cede enough control to appeal to the entire rural caucus. Bush Caucus members represent the four House districts that cover northern and western Alaska.

He needed, he said, to see a formal report showing the committee assignments each member of the Bush Caucus would receive.

“I think we’ve always understood that it’s better for the Bush Caucus to stick together,” Patkotak said.

A proposal was ready on the first day of the legislative session. He put Edgmon and Foster at the head of the powerful House Finance Committee. McCormick and Patkotak would be on the Committee on Community and Regional Affairs, a common destination for legislation affecting Alaska’s cities, districts and rural areas, and Patkotak would be among the leaders of the new majority.

“He said, ‘This is a way forward that I see. What do you guys think about it?’” Foster said.

After talking among themselves, they agreed and discussed their intentions shortly before the House met on Tuesday.

With Patkotak in favor of the Republican caucus and Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, likely to vote along with other Republicans, “I thought they had all 21 votes to organize, regardless of the full Bush caucus,” Edgmon said.

“This is the only avenue that seemed like the most viable in terms of trying to keep it in a caucus,” Foster said.

Democrats and Independents tried unsuccessfully to influence Edgmon, Foster, and Patkotak. McCormick voted against Tilton as a speaker, but he stayed with the Bush Caucus and is now a member of the majority.

Before 2017, when the predominantly Democratic coalition took control, it was common for the Bush Caucus to join the Republicans in the majority, to better champion rural priorities.

“I work hard to put my district in the best position it can be,” Edgmon said.

The key difference between then and now is that the Republicans used to have a majority without the Bush Caucus. They now have the majority thanks to the Bush Caucus.

He’s creating some strange allies, at least by historical standards.

Six years ago, when Edgmon served as Speaker of the House, the ruling coalition voted to limit debate and tried to force through a budget bill in a bid to avoid a government shutdown.

In a stirring speech, Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, joined a number of Republicans in denouncing Edgmon. His decision to limit the debate, Saddler said, was “worse than Pearl Harbor.”

Saddler is now Majority Leader of the same organization that introduces Edgmon. He says that he regrets those words but considers them to be the politics of the moment, an assessment Edgmon agrees with.

“That’s politics,” Edgmon said. “In the ebb and flow of politics, whatever happened years ago is water under the bridge.”

Local issues, not national political lines

“I’m sure there will be people who feel they would rather have me here on one side or the other,” Foster said, but he feels they are in the minority in his district.

Political parties, he said, are not deep.

“You don’t see a lot of fundraising events, you don’t see a lot of (political) meetings like that,” he said.

Instead, Foster said, what matters is providing the support, whether direct financial payments like the Permanent Fund dividend, or indirectly, through government services, that his district needs.

That district, which covers Nome and the Bering Strait shoreline, has the second-highest poverty rate of any House district in Alaska.

“We need to make sure that we have housing that improves,” Foster said. “What can we do with the air conditioning programs? Because, you know, when you come across people who are just struggling to get by, what are you going to tell them?

In the 32nd Legislature that ended last week, Patkotak was one of the most conservative members of the predominantly Democratic coalition that controlled the House.

Because that coalition had only 21 members, it was in the forefront of the House, forced into awkward votes on contentious issues. Now in the 33rd Legislature, he is part of a 23-person majority and is not on either political extreme.

The absence of a single member of the majority due to illness or family emergency will not paralyze the business, as has occasionally happened in the last two years.

The Legislature is not a 9-to-5, Monday-Friday job, Patkotak noted. The need to research, meet constituents’ needs and work on legislative issues means lawmakers are working long after they leave the House.

Patkotak’s third child was born as the 32nd Legislature began and he was unable to participate in the first two years of that child’s life due to needing to remain on call, Patkotak said.

“That plays a big role in my decision-making process,” he said. “I almost completely missed them.”

Important to the rest of the state, he noted, is the fact that the Bush Caucus decision ends the torturous leadership struggle the House endured in 2019 and 2021. It took three weeks in each case to choose a speaker because to narrow margins. between the Republicans and the multiparty coalition.

If the Bush Caucus had stuck with the existing coalition, that impasse might have returned.

Bethel’s McCormick is the newest member of the Bush Caucus. Elected unopposed except for write-in candidates, he is also the youngest member of the Legislature and a staunch Democrat.

When it came time to vote for Tilton, he voted no, but still agreed to join the majority.

The vote, he said, was a gesture of solidarity for his Democratic friends and he hopes they will continue to work together. He doesn’t expect reprisals for her decision.

“That’s been in the back of my mind, but I haven’t seen or heard anything like it,” McCormick said.

Part of the reason may be the fact that, although they are now in the minority, Democrats and independents still have great influence in the House.

Among the 11 members of the House Finance Committee, six are independents or Democrats. Coordinated action could allow them to block legislation or modify the state budget, although that is hypothetical at this time.

Or, said Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau and a minority member, the lack of pay could be an acknowledgment that in Alaska’s loose politics, this is normal.

“In this business,” he said, “you can’t afford to hold hard feelings.”