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July 10, 2008

The Alaska Senate: A Different Kind of Minority Majority

posted by Josh Goodman

The Alaska Senate has 20 members. Only nine members of the body are Democrats. Yet every one of those Democrats is part of the majority.

I investigated this strange phenomenon in the July issue of Governing:

It started as a marriage of convenience.

Republicans won an 11-to-9 edge in the Alaska Senate after the 2006 elections, but couldn't agree on a president for the body. So Republican Lyda Green teamed up with the Democrats, brought five of her GOP allies along, and made a bipartisan majority. Green became president, while Democrats received several key committee chairmanships.

To the surprise of just about everyone, the "working group," as it's known, has worked fairly well. Republicans didn't try to circumvent the power of the Democratic committee chairs. Controversial bills on issues such as abortion were dropped from the agenda. And, this January, a Democrat shifted into the position of majority leader.

Of course, the two sides still have their policy differences. On the biggest vote of 2007, over an increase in the state tax on oil companies, the coalition split. Democrats teamed up with members of the Republican minority to approve the tax. But, even then, the coalition leadership didn't set up procedural hurdles to stop the vote. "Senator Green detested that legislation," says Senator Hollis French, a Democrat. "She is a low-tax person, but she presided over its passage in an even-handed and fair way."

This year, with half the Senate up for reelection, the goodwill is carrying over to the campaign trail. Democratic senators aren't working against their coalition partners on the GOP side. Republicans in the working group appear to be abiding by a similar truce.

That isn't to say that everyone is willing to accept the arrangement. Many Republicans were livid that their party would give Democrats power that hadn't been earned at the polls. "The party doesn't recognize the coalition," says Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Alaska GOP. "We're looking to elect Republicans."

It's possible that the working group will soon be deprived of its leader. Green has clashed at times with Sarah Palin, the popular Republican governor, and for the August primary, the Senate president's critics have recruited a challenger to Green who comes from a well-connected political family. Even if she is beaten for renomination, however, that might not mean the end of the arrangement. Democrats are optimistic that they can pick up a 10th seat in November to bring the body into parity. In that case, lawmakers may have no choice but to continue their experiment in bipartisanship.

Days after I wrote the article, Green announced that she was dropping her reelection bid.


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