Politics: Tell Me Something Good

(Author’s Note: This is an excerpt from an unedited transcript that contains typos, grammatical errors and an occasional bad word. This the fifth in a series published every Friday.)

Introduction
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A few days after the house organization mauling, I penned a three page letter to Speaker Brian Porter outlining what I believed to be the hypocrisy of the entire affair.

The letter dated November 13, 2000 questioned why three members who left the caucus the previous year, were not only welcomed back with loving arms, they were given committee chairmanships.”Throughout the entire second year of last session we were subject to their theatrics and and hypocritical statements to the media. It is only now I realize why they were rewarded after doing far worse than I did,” the letter began.

“Last April, while we were in the final stages of the budget, some of us heard a rumor that the former caucus members had struck a deal with leadership. In exchange for their votes to move the budget forward, they would be welcomed back in without question after the November election.” By then I was just getting warmed up.

“When we confronted Eldon in caucus, the question regarding the existence of a deal was never answered. However it was made cleared last Thursday during the organizing meeting. When Eldon argued for Ogan, Coghill and Kohring to be reinstated without losing seniority, his argument was that they’d been so helpful with the CBR vote. In addition I kept hearing members say it was time to move forward. Eldon himself said, our opportunities lie ahead of us, not behind us. It is apparent I was not worthy of that same forgiveness.”

The letter was never sent. After trying to answer the question what good would it do, I simply didn’t have an answer. It reminded me of the final scene in Titanic where  Jack tells Rose he’s going to write a strongly worded letter to the White Star Line. Seriously I thought, why?

On January 7, 2001, the day before the Twenty-Second Legislature was scheduled to gavel in, the house majority held their first caucus to outline strategy for the coming session.  Unlike my first two years when I’d sit in the front row, the next two years I’d do time in the back row. As I dropped into my chair I suddenly felt like that stoner in Mrs. Craig’s eighth grade social studies class who sat in the back row with his head buried in his ski jacket. Oh wait, that was me I thought to myself.

Sitting next to me on his traditional back row throne was Nome Representative Richard Foster. As colleagues went, Foster was one in a million. Undoubtedly one of the funniest people I’ve ever met who was known for his epic birthday tributes. With Foster, whenever it seemed your day couldn’t get any worse, he’d be right there with a quip or a story that would make you forget your troubles.

One of my favorite Foster stories was his strategy for getting re-elected during tough times. He represented one of the largest and most geographically challenging districts in the country, and his rural constituents had been hit hard by budget cuts as the urban/rural divide was at its peak.  “I never run for re-election, I’m always running for election,” Foster told me. He went on to explain when his constituents start complaining about the current legislature and how they need to be thrown out of office, “I tell them that’s exactly why I’m running for election, I want to go to Juneau and clean things up.” He also had a unique way of empowering others to carry the humor.

During one floor session Foster openly dared me to stand and speak with an Elvis Presley voice.  “Mr. Speaker, I move and ask unanimous consent that I be considered the king,” I asked in my best Elvis voice, which got me a what the hell look from the speaker’s dais. Foster immediately followed up with a note promising me a lifetime of free beer during his traditional Friday evening soirees in his office.

With the exception of getting to hang out with Foster in the back row, closed majority caucuses were simply tortuous. With the door closed, and out of the eyes of the public and press, lawmakers were able to advocate one position to their constituents and another in caucus meetings.  While many of my fellow colleagues got elected on cutting government spending, behind closed doors the conversation was radically different.

Many of my colleagues, especially Mat-Valley Republicans were vociferous about budget cuts in public, but behind closed doors they were constantly trying to bank more state cash for their districts. “Our area is growing fast and we need more land recorders and administrative support,” Palmer Representative Scott Ogan pleaded with Finance Co-Chair Eldon Mulder during the closed-door meeting.

Mulder, as Co-Chair of the Finance Committee was one of the most powerful men in the capitol, and his ability to move between being the good cop and the bad cop was uncanny.

My first experience with the bad cop was back in 1999, when the University of Alaska budget subcommittee voted unanimously to fully fund the university’s request. The word from the majority leadership had been that the committee was supposed to approve flat funding. But a handful of Republican members on the subcommittee ignored the directive and voted for the increase requested.

The committee heard compelling testimony from new University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton that the university system was losing valuable staff due to retirement incentive programs. Meanwhile the waiting list for special programs like the School of Nursing was out the door, while Alaska’s hospitals were being forced to bring in out-of-state nurses.

With the refusal of the members on the committee to back away from our full funding vote, an emergency caucus was called. The majority members of the UAA budget subcommittee were myself, Alan Austerman from Kodiak, John Harris from Valdez, and Lisa Murkowski from Anchorage. We were all told pointedly that the agreed upon caucus budget parameters called for flat funding the university’s wish list. Mulder had already taken a few of us into his office to have a private discussion about how when the word comes down, those were the numbers we needed to support.

One of the many reasons why the committee was so stubborn on the increased funding was President Hamilton. After being on the job as president for just a few months, his presentation to lawmakers turned out to be one of the best I’d see in all my years in Juneau.  His vision for the university and his an encyclopedic knowledge of historical state funding and it’s effects on student outcomes completely silenced critical lawmakers. But more importantly the committee felt with oil at $10 per barrel, it was exactly the right time to start investing in higher education.

When the budget sub-committee reconvened to reconsider the initial vote, our votes remained the same. Not one of us had changed our minds.

Another caucus was called immediately after the second refusal to comply with the funding vote. By now the house leadership was exasperated and threatened to create a new subcommittee if we didn’t go back and vote for flat funding. When the subcommittee met for the third time the flat funding was approved, but not before some members criticized their inability to vote freely in committee. It was shortly thereafter I would realize that all funding debates in committee were about stagecraft.

The act opens when the budget subcommittee approves flat funding. Then the House Finance Committee gets credit for putting an increase in funding, and then the Senate Finance Committee gets credit for adding even more funding. So the only people who get screwed in the entire production are the budget subcommittee members who are forced to vote for no increase. Why do we even need these committees if we’re completely neutered, I was quoted in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. The next day the Daily News Miner ran an editorial proclaiming the university rebellion “was fun while it lasted.”

Your seat selection in the caucus room was as strategic as your seat selection on the house floor. When it came to where you were going to set up camp for the next two years, there is a combination of luck and strategy involved. Seats are chosen based on seniority with the majority picking first. For freshman lawmakers, especially those in the minority, they get the left overs.

Do you have a tendency to come in late, leave early or spend most of the calendar in the legislative lounge? Sit in the back. Do you want the ability to survey the entire battlefield to keep track of who’s passing notes to whom? Sit in the back. Do you want maximum face time whenever the Gavel to Gavel camera is on? The front row is all you.

During my first term I was sandwiched in the second row between two fellow Republicans, Ketchikan Rep. Bill Williams and Valdez Rep. John Harris. After my first year of amendments and floor speeches, both Williams and Harris would grab my suit sleeve if I looked like I was going to rise to speak. Williams in a soft voice would commonly joke, “Don’t do it….don’t do it,” and during a budget debate passed me a note that read, “The speaker has asked me to kindly handcuff you to your seat.” I looked at the speaker and his eyes were locked on me, almost to assure the message had been delivered with the proper amount of emphasis.

My second legislative session I moved to an aisle seat next to Anchorage Democrat Eric Croft. Within a year I went from seat mates who discouraged me from speaking out, to a seat mate who would try to goad me into speaking out. “Are you going to let them get away with that? Are you going to let them get away with that? I cannot believe you’d let them get away with that,” Croft would say with feigned outrage. His final comment, slowly drawn out, with a shake of the head for that dis-approving parent look.

During one contentious debate I reassured him that Major League Baseball season was almost upon us, and that everything would be right with the world again. “You’re a pro-choice Republican and a Boston Red Sox fan? Could your life get any more frustrating?” Croft asked.

During the legislative session in Juneau, getting fed was never a concern. Between the nightly receptions and the dinner offers from lobbyist, lawmakers could find significant savings in their food budgets. Former Anchorage Daily News columnist Mike Doogan once penned a column about free meals being a perk in Juneau, quoting one lawmaker who said he hadn’t paid for a meal in months.

My first year in the legislature I attended roughly a half-dozen receptions, but by February I had negotiated a cease fire with myself. For the love of God, how many chicken wings and stuffed mushrooms can one person tolerate in a 120 day span? The same banquet food night after night. The same depressing surroundings night after night. Not to mention the tedious, and endless small talk as people jump in and out of your conversations, each lobbyist with their own little initiative to pitch.

If getting feed wasn’t a concern, getting home on the weekends was. It seemed every Friday the fog and clouds would start to creep in about 2:30. With an eye on getting out of Juneau on the 7pm flight, it was a race against mother nature to get out. The oncoming apocalypse of Juneau weather bearing down on your hopes and dreams of escaping to some kind of normalcy back in Anchorage, but if for only two days. One of the best feelings I experienced while being a legislator was feeling Alaska Airlines flight 67 to Anchorage hurtling down the runway.

Housing was another nightmare in Juneau. Upon arriving in Juneau for my first year, I rented a studio apartment at the Baranof Hotel. Along with being assaulted by the smells of garlic mixed with cigarettes and booze wafting through the airshaft every morning, I was treated to regular boxing matches between drunks underneath my window.

One night when a couple of townies were yelling over a bottle of vodka, I laid in bed and thought about that creative Absolute Vodka ad campaign where they take people and places and incorporate them into the content of their unique shaped bottle.  I could see the outline of two drunks fighting underneath my window in the shadow of the Baranof Hotel sign. The caption should be something like “Absolute Shitty” I thought to myself, as the elevator shaft next to my room let out a clang.

One bright spot was that Representative Norm Rokeberg had the room across the hall. Every morning I’d pass his room on the way to the elevator and the air was filled with the smell of bacon and eggs. For two fabulous steps while passing by his door,  I was able to ignore the stench of stale booze and cigarettes. After one year in Juneau my days at the Baranof came to an end.

As Speaker Porter gaveled the house to order on January 8, 2001 to begin the Twenty Second Legislative session, he announced the creation of a new committee, the Special Committee on Education. My ears perked up from my aisle seat on the house floor, as Porter listed off the member’s names for the newly formed committee. Given that I had only two committee assignments, I was certain they’d throw me a small bone. No way.

Mr. Speaker, at ease please, I asked.  As I walked up to the Speaker’s dais, he could obviously see what was coming. I have only two committee assignments and I get screwed again, I asked a visibly uncomfortable Porter. So this is how it’s going to be for the next two years, I added. Avoiding eye contact he seemed to nod and shrug his shoulders at the same time.

I know it hasn’t been proven scientifically, but when you cuss on the floor of the house, it does have short term therapeutic value. The “this is so much fuckin’ bullshit” line I repeated to myself several times as I returned to my seat actually made me feel better; until I sat down and realized it could be a very long two years.

With all the distractions of opening day pomp and circumstance, along with a lot of new faces eager to visit on the floor and with friends in the galleries, I had no reason to think anyone was paying attention to my trip to the speaker’s dais during the at ease. I thought wrong. While leaving the house floor a short time later, Rep. Foster sidled up beside me in the hallway, and while shooting me that signature Richard Foster cock eyed smile said under his breathe, “Idle hands in the devil’s workshop.”

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