The hallway crowd in front of Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis’ first floor Capitol office began gathering about 2 pm on a Wednesday afternoon the first week of April. By 3pm it had swollen to over sixty people. Reporters, cameramen, legislators from both houses, staff, lobbyists and a couple constituents all waited expectantly.
Behind the closed office door nine Senate Democrats were debating whether to accept or reject Governor Sarah’s choice as to who would be the next senator to represent the capitol city.
Long time Juneau legislator Kim Elton had vacated the Senate seat a month before to accept a high level job with the Department of Interior in the Obama administration, leaving the Juneau Senate seat vacant.
It was up to the Governor to, within thirty days. appoint a replacement of the same party as the member who resigned,
Speculation and rumors ran rampant through the growing crowd. Governor Sarah had taken longer than any other Governor in the history of the state to name an appointment to a vacant legislative seat. She had waited the full thirty days allowed by Alaska’s constitution. Juneau had been without representation in the Senate for one third of the session, a scenario our founding fathers never contemplated. They had rejected the concept of session limits in order to balance the power between the legislative branch of government and the powerful executive position they created. Now, with a session limit of 90 days, the balance so carefully crafted, had tipped in favor of the executive, Governor Sarah, and she was playing them like a fiddle.
That’s a big deal, philosophically and politically.
The conflict arose when the Governor, apparently and unfortunately, decided to play to her national political crowd and appoint someone who more reflected her political agenda and not the much more liberal choice of Juneau’s Democratic party, popular six term legislator, House Majority Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula.
Would they reject or accept Governor Sarah’s choice, Tim Grussendorf, chief of staff to Senator Lyman Hoffman, co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee?
Suddenly, the door opened and a visually grim Senator Hoffman strode out of the room and down the hallway, alone, wordless. He got in an elevator and went to his office on the Capitol’s 5th floor where his aide awaited the news.
A few minuets later he was followed by the eight remaining Democrats, all stoic, nobody talking.
The end result was that Tim Grussendorf was rejected. The vote within the Democratic caucus, although not publicly announced, was a contentious 5-4, with Angoon’s Sen. Albert Kookesh siding with the Anchorage Senate Democrat’s in support of Juneau’s choice, House Minority Leader, Rep. Kerttula.
All hell broke loose.
Image. Power. Control. Ambition. Ego. This was politics at its most personal. The knife fight everyone wants to avoid but just can’t seem to.
And to what end? What was the Governor’s motive? Why pick a fight with the only cohesive legislative caucus that supports most of her major initiatives?