House elects Kodiak Rep. Stutes as speaker but organization not yet finalized

House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, speaks to the House after being elected permanent speaker on Feb. 11, 2021.

Update 1:10 p.m. This post has been updated to include comments from Rep. Kelly Merrick, the lone Republican to break ranks and support Stutes’ election.

After 23 days without organization, the Alaska House of Representatives has finally elected a permanent House Speaker in moderate Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes.

The election of House Speaker Stutes finally allows the chamber to organize, hold committee hearings and review legislation. That’s particularly critical given the state’s public health disaster declaration is set to expire on Sunday if the Legislature doesn’t approve an extension before then.

The House has been evenly split between 20 party-line Republicans and 20 members of the bipartisan coalition, of which Stutes is a long-time member. Stutes was nominated by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields.

The vote was 21-19 with Eagle River Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick serving as the lone vote to break ranks in support of Stutes. Merrick later said her vote didn’t mean she was joining the House majority coalition (more on that below).

Stutes took over the gavel from temporary House Speaker Rep. Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak, a freshman independent who held the position since last week, and told the chamber that she’s eager to bring the House back together.

“I want to thank you for the trust you put in me and I look forward to uniting this House of Representatives,” she said. We all need to walk down the same side of the street and I’m very excited to be instrumental in bringing this House back together. Thank you, thank you for the confidence.”

Stutes has been a long-time member of the House bipartisan coalition and one of the few moderate Republicans to survive far-right challenges for doing so. She’s been a fierce advocate of the Alaska Marine Highway System and a close ally of former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham. After the election left the House evenly split, she confirmed her continued support for the House coalition because it best serves the interests of her coastal community.

“It is critical now, more than ever, that we stand our ground to protect and restore our coastal communities,” she said at the time in a written statement. “After giving it careful thought, I am making it public that I will be caucusing with my colleagues in the current House Majority Coalition who share my vision for a vibrant rural, as well as urban Alaska.”

The House has not settled on the rest of its organization and adjourned from session shortly after noon. There’s talk about whether or not additional Republicans could come over, but it opens a path for the House to approve the extension of the disaster declaration.

In a statement released after the vote, Stutes said, “We welcome members from all political backgrounds to join our coalition.”

Not so fast

While Merrick supported Stutes, she released a statement clarifying that she has not committed to joining the House coalition but was motivated to support Stutes because she’s a Republican and because she is concerned about the continuation of the state’s disaster declaration.

“It was by no means an easy decision to make, but it ensured that no matter how organization comes together, there will be a Republican speaker. To be clear, I have not joined the Alaska House Coalition,” Merrick wrote. “However, like most Alaskans, I have been frustrated by taking the same fruitless votes day after day and I felt we could no longer afford to delay extending the governor’s emergency disaster declaration, crafting a fiscally conservative budget and pass the construction jobs bill.”

She still gave a ringing endorsement to Stutes, writing that the moderate “has served many years in the Legislature, has personal relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and is committed to bringing people together to tackle issues facing Alaska.”

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