Divisions Rise Among Bush Caucus Members

By JAMES BROOKS
Alaska Beacon
    For more than five decades, a group of rural Alaska lawmakers known as the Bush Caucus have at times played a king-making role in the Alaska Legislature.
    Rural lawmakers have frequently put regional interests above those of party loyalty, and their willingness to cross the partisan aisle has frequently given them outsized power in the Capitol. Last year, the group’s willingness to join Republicans swung control of the entire House.

Rep. Ashley Carrick, D-Fairbanks, listens to debate in the Alaska House of Representatives Thursday.

(Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

    But this year, the group once known as the “ice bloc,” appears to have cracked, with Republican Rep. Thomas Baker of Kotzebue often on the opposite side of votes cast by Reps. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; Neal Foster, D-Nome; and CJ McCormick, D-Bethel.
    “It’s certainly a departure from a time-honored tradition, which is unfortunate,” Edgmon said.
    The influence of the Bush Caucus in the Legislature has come in part from its members working together, and the divide could  damage that influence. In a closely divided state House, it also has implications for the rest of the state.
When the state House debated Senate Bill 140, the big multipart education bill, the House split 20-20 on a proposal from Gov. Mike Dunleavy to pay cash bonuses to teachers. Baker voted for it. The non-Republican members representing northern or western districts voted against it, killing the idea.
    When Dunleavy vetoed SB 140, the non-Republicans voted to override the veto. Baker voted to sustain the veto, which was upheld by a single vote.
    “All of the legislators have a responsibility to fight for their districts and it’s no different for those of us from rural Alaska,” Baker said in response to emailed questions. He did not respond to a request for an in-person interview.

“We all have unique needs for the areas we represent and I would say we typically agree on things while there are other times we may have different strategies for how to do what is best for our people,” he said.
    Baker was appointed to office by Dunleavy in December, following the election of former Rep. Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, as mayor of the North Slope Borough.
    Because Patkotak was an independent, state law allowed Dunleavy to pick a district resident of any political stripe.
    He chose a Republican, and Baker became the first Republican since John Curtis in the first Alaska State Legislature to represent a state House or Senate district north of the Brooks Range.
    Party ID doesn’t matter, the other northern and western representatives said.
    “I actually chat with him a lot. So I keep it very cordial, and we get along just fine,” Foster said.
    “Even if we’re not in alignment, we’re still, in a way, the Bush Caucus,” McCormick said.
    Instead, it’s the votes and policies that matter, the three non-Republicans say, and they’ve been puzzled by the choices their Republican coworker is making.
    “It’s disappointing sometimes to see where votes land. I’m trying to understand why those votes are being made, because they don’t seem like they represent the region,” McCormick said.
    “I get the strong feeling that his district really wanted him to do the override on (Senate Bill) 140. I guess the question is: Is he voting for things that his district wants?” Foster said.
    Baker addressed the issue in response to an emailed question.
    “Regarding my vote on Senate Bill 140, I fully support doing everything we can to fund our schools,” he said. “One circumstance around this bill was that it was not a package that all parties could agree upon as the right way to move forward. I have been working with my colleagues in the House to improve on the previous bill to get funding secured as well as ensuring that there is communication with the Senate and the Governor as all three entities need to sign off on any bill for it to pass.”
    On March 1, when the House voted on a Baker-sponsored resolution criticizing federal management of the National Petroleum Reserve on the North Slope, McCormick and Edgmon left the room shortly before the vote.
    McCormick declined to say whether his absence was intended to slight Baker, while Edgmon said it was a simple accident, and he has since apologized.
    Regardless of the reason, the incident angered Baker, other legislators said. He did not answer an emailed question seeking comment.
    Some commentators see Baker acting in alignment with Dunleavy, who appointed him. Jeff Landfield, an Anchorage political writer, noted that according to Dunleavy’s public calendar, he met with Baker five times in February, an unusually large number.
    Foster has been in a similar position.
    In 2009, Former Gov. Sean Parnell appointed Foster to the Legislature to fill a vacancy caused by the death of his father, legislator Richard Foster. Speaking this week, Foster said he remembers feeling some sense of obligation to Parnell during that first year.
    “That first year, I remember him pulling me into his office a couple of times and saying, ‘Hey, would really love you to support us on some things,’ and sometimes I could, sometimes I couldn’t, but I do remember feeling a little more of that pressure,” Foster said.
    After Foster won election on his own merits, he said that pressure went away.
    “If he makes it back next year, maybe he’ll also feel like, ‘I did this on my own, I wasn’t appointed, and I maybe can be a little more independent,’” Foster said.
    Baker did not answer a question asking whether he feels the same pressures that Foster described.
    On Monday, Baker joined three other Republican legislators in voting to cancel a hearing on prison deaths that McCormick had scheduled in the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee.
    “Yesterday was pretty brazen, and I’m not really super happy that I got pantsed like that on the record,” McCormick said the day afterward.
    Asked about the incident, Baker said, “my intent was to follow the uniform rules of the Legislature. Following the distribution of a memo from Legislative Legal Services on the topic of ongoing lawsuits I felt it was most appropriate to not suspend the rules and to not hear the intended presentation.”
    Foster said that even if there is friction between rural members, the Bush Caucus still maintains a great deal of influence. The House Majority has only 23 members, and discounting the three non-Republicans would leave it with just 20, not enough to function.
    In the Legislature, you can’t get mad at the way someone votes, Foster said, because that legislator knows their district best, “but I do recognize that there is a little bit of a difference in the way we’re approaching things for our common rural constituency,” Foster said.
    “We’re not always getting the things that we want,” Foster said. “But that is the process. And some days you win. And some days you don’t. We all have to lick our wounds and keep moving forward.”
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