Politics: Please shut the door on the way out

What is the background?

Alaska State Capitol -May 15, 2002 – 10:30p – On the last evening of the 2002 legislative session, I had seized the opportunity during a break on the house floor to make a quick drive home to grab my cell phone charger. As I pulled into the second floor of the legislative parking garage, I knew I was just ninety minutes from putting the toughest two years of my legislative career in the rear view mirror.

Thirty seconds later I was greeted by Rep. Eric Croft just inside the second floor entrance. “The senate is going to ask the house to extend the session,” Croft said. “Oh hell no” I responded as part question, part answer. “Oh hell no,” I repeated without even breaking stride.

After the previous 120 days I was in no mood to spend any more time in the capitol building than was constitutionally required of me. But due to a complete collapse on the senate side, including a floor calendar that had 25 bills remaining with an hour left until adjournment, they needed the house to extend the session to be rescued from themselves.

As I walked into the caucus room, a number of majority members were already in animated conversations about the senate’s meltdown. When House Speaker Brian Porter called the room to order, he gave a brief synopsis of the reasons for the senate’s predicament.  Too many moving parts, too much disagreement in their caucus, too many concessions being asked for by the minority. He mentioned that State Senate President Rick Halford, and State Sen. Dave Donley were waiting outside the door and wanted to give their own explanation.

While I always had tremendous respect for Rick Halford, and found him pragmatic and honest, Donley was another case. Once he told me he wouldn’t support a subsistence amendment because he felt didn’t get enough appreciation from the native community. More recently he had lied to me about supporting legislation in committee to allow Moose’s Tooth to increase their beer production. Days later he and fellow Senate Judiciary members John Cowdery and Robin Taylor tried to kill the bill. Their actions forced the owners of Moose’s Tooth to spend thousands to hire a lobbyist to save the effort.

One of the souring points with Donley came years earlier when he asked me to carry one of his bills on the house floor. The bill would have mandated that communities with a population over 250,000, bury all overhead electrical lines. He just happened to be running for Anchorage mayor at the time, and his proposed legislation would have applied only to Anchorage. I warned him of the opposition to the bill from strong local control legislators like Rep. Gail Phillips from Homer, who didn’t quite appreciate the legislature sending mandates to communities. Donley assured me he had the votes lined up for passage.

After I stood on the floor to introduce Donley’s bill, the push back started immediately, and sure enough one of the first legislators to stand and object to his bill was Rep. Gail Phillips. “This bill is clearly limited to Anchorage. If someone wants to campaign for mayor, they should do it without trying to pass poorly thought out legislation.” The response by my colleagues was so vitriolic, I was almost afraid to do a final wrap up before the vote.

When I finally stood to close debate after both Republicans and Democrats shredded the bill, I looked at the speaker and said, “Mr. Speaker, I guess I’ve been asked to walk a dog with fleas.”

But it wasn’t the easily bruised egos of senators that constantly put me at odds with them, it was the blatant strong arming that this crew was known for, that never worked .

During my two terms in Juneau I was called into the offices of Republican Senators at least a half  dozen times to be lectured about how I should’t speak up in the press, how my collaboration with Democrats on a fiscal solution was going to cost me re-election, or how I shouldn’t criticize the senate for failing to act on the budget crisis. One of the more memorable times was during the fiscal crisis, after commenting in the press about the do-nothing senate. I was promptly scolded by a senator who said the senate felt like I was shooting arrows in their backs.What was memorable about the encounter was it came from Fairbanks Senator Gary Wilkens. At six foot nine, Wilkens was one of the most gracious and soft spoken legislators in Juneau. The scolding felt more like a conversation with a cool uncle.

However nothing was more characteristic of the senate’s strong-arm tactics than Senator Pete Kelly sending Rep. Eldon Mulder to call me off the house floor, in the middle of debate after I offered an amendment to one of his more controversial bills.

Imagine. A sudden at ease. A senior member of leadership comes up from the back of the chambers to escort a freshman member off the floor while the 39 other house members pretend that they’re not watching some bizarre legislative death march. Then on the other side of the chamber door awaits a senator, who’s none to pleased about his breakfast bagel in the legislative lounge being interrupted by your tom foolery with his legislation.

After ushering me into the speaker’s office away from the press, Kelly said  “You can’t offer this amendment. It will gut the bill. You need to take one for the team on this.” As he was standing in front of me prattling on about cohesion and party unity, my mind began to wander.  How does he think I’m going to back down after pulling me off the floor, I asked myself. Another voice inside my head asked, is this guy ever going to shut up? Finally I iterjected, “Senator” I replied,  “you’re not on my team. My team already voted overwhelmingly against what you are proposing. And please don’t ever pull me off the house floor again.” I turned and walked out into the hallway, which was now crowded with members of the press corp.

When I returned to the floor I wasted no time in offering the amendment while denouncing Kelly’s attempted coercion. The next day (April 4, 2000) the Anchorage Daily News headline read “Halcro Pressured: Stands Ground.”

When State Sen. Dave Donley and Rick Halford entered the caucus room at a little after 11pm, both were sheepish, both barely took two steps inside the big wooden doors to pitch their case. The time was 11pm, and as mandated by the state’s constitution the legislature was required to adjourn by midnight.

When Halford and Donley departed the caucus room after their eleventh hour plea to extend the session, most lawmakers expressed strong support for the idea. “If we don’t extend, all of our bills will die,” said Rep. Norm Rokeberg. Others echoed his sentiments, pleading that it was an election year and they needed their personal legislation passed so they could campaign on the good work they’d accomplished.

Looking around the caucus room, I could pick out two members who were obviously not buying the argument. About twenty minutes into heated conversation, Representative Lesil McGuire stormed out of the room, followed closely by Con Bunde.

The rules of the legislature required that in order to extend the session, 2/3 of the members had to vote in the affirmative. In total we had twenty-eight members in the caucus, but with Rep. Scott Ogan out due to health issues it left the house majority with the minimum number needed. Given every vote was needed to extend the session, the sudden departure of McGuire and Bunde caused the room to devolve into chaos. They both eventually returned and supported the extension.

“It’s not our fault the senate imploded,” I told the caucus room, my comments drawing a mixture of muffled profanity and audible groans.  “We had the same amount of time and twice the number of members and we got our work done on time. I’m a no vote.”

When those words passed my lips, I knew it was time to leave. The gnashing of teeth and wailing grew increasingly more hostile. As I moved towards the door, Rep. Rokeberg stood and shadowed my path. “How can you do this to all of us,” Rokeberg asked? His voice growing louder with each syllable in an attempt to be heard over a rising tide of lawmakers frantically talking over one another. As I reached the door, I paused and turned to face my colleagues. The room drew silent.

Standing in the caucus room doorway, I stared back at two dozen blank faces waiting for my response. I thought about the evening of November 7, 2000, the last time I stood in a caucus room doorway and stared into those same blank faces.

For a sanctuary whose legislative history was littered with criticism from the press and the Democratic minority for shielding the public from the techniques used to maintain a conga line on caucus issues, there I stood in the open doorway of the much vaunted majority caucus room. A room that represented so much intrigue, and mystique to me before I was elected. A room where political messages were delivered, positions were realigned, and donor’s wishes were made clear. A room that I was about to tell to fuck off.

I stood gripping the door handled so tight I though it would snap off. I drew a deep breath.

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