Kerttula leaves Legislature for Stanford ocean fellowship

Photo/Michael Penn/Juneau Empire

JUNEAU — Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, the House Minority Leader, announced her immediate resignation from the Alaska Legislature to accept a position as visiting fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions at her alma mater Stanford University.

“This is not an advocacy position. It’s also a nonpartisan position, so it’ll be a big change for me,” Kerttula said at a news conference following her announcement Jan. 21 at the end of the day’s House floor session.

Kerttula’s resignation is effective at 5 p.m. Jan. 24 when the 30-day clock for Gov. Sean Parnell’s appointment of a Democrat to the seat begins running. Juneau’s “Tongass Democrats” Party is expected to send Parnell three choices from what could be a crowded field of applicants.

The governor’s selection must be confirmed by a majority vote of the nine remaining House Democrats.

For unknown reasons, Stanford’s award of the fellowship was later than expected, which forced Kerttula’s high-speed transition. She was informed on Jan. 17 that she had been chosen for the research and lecturer post, which begins Feb. 3.

“It would have been my great preference to talk to people, many more of them personally, before I had to announce,” Kerttula said.

Ken Alper and Jesse Kiehl, respectively staff aids to Kerttula and Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan, have announced their plans to seek the appointment, but several other applicants are expected.

Former Juneau mayor and Alaska attorney general Bruce Botelho, mentioned as a possible caretaker appointee to the post until this November’s election, said he is committed to the gubernatorial election campaign of Byron Mallott and would not seek the post.

Kerttula, who served 15 years in the House including the last seven as minority caucus leader, did not rule out a possible return to the Legislature or other elective office.

“What I’ve learned from this experience is keep your heart open because you don’t know what the opportunity will be,” Kerttula said when asked if her Alaskan political career was ending.

“I know that the position is one year at Stanford with the opportunity to renegotiate for another year. I think I’ll probably be there two years.”

She said she and husband, Jim, are not selling their Juneau home and would return here after her time at Stanford.

Minority Whip Chris Tuck, now in his third term, was chosen by his caucus to become the Minority Leader. Rep. Max Gruenberg will take over as whip. Both are from Anchorage.

Kerttula’s father, Jalmar, enjoyed a two-decade career in the Legislature representing the Mat-Su Valley, including one term each as House speaker and Senate president. His daughter expressed her regret at not having the opportunity to follow him as speaker but said she could not pass up the opportunity at Stanford.

“Twenty years from now you’ll be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones you did do,” Kerttula declared in what she said was a quote from Mark Twain. “Sometime you can feel in your heart what the right thing to do is now. It’s time for me to follow Mark Twain’s advice,” she said

The Center for Ocean Solutions is a consortium of Stanford Law School, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions. Kerttula said she wants to connect the expertise from those organizations with West Coast legislators and policy makers “so we can learn and do good things with the ocean.”

“Coming from Alaska, I want to understand how we have the development in line with how do we keep our oceans vibrant and healthy,” Kerttula said.

The highlight of her legislative career was not the passage of any bill but constituent work and an incident during her first term in office when a Juneau woman sought help to obtain a medical procedure that had been cancelled because of an insurance billing error.

“She needed the procedure and the mistake stopped it. She was going to die,” Kerttula recalled.

“Out of everything that’s affected me and all the work I’ve ever done the fact that it can be that important to serve, that it can be that important to people to have a legislator who’s willing to work hard and pay attention to them personally, that was the most important thing I’ve ever done ... To help save someone’s life, it doesn’t get any more important than that.”

The most important lesson she is taking from the Legislature is to “look for the opportunity to work with someone on the things you can agree on.”

“Even if I’m disagreeing vehemently with somebody on one issue one day, I really try hard to lay that aside when I think about, we’re going to work on something together later on,” Kerttula explained.

She said she and conservative Fairbanks Sen. John Coghill “do not agree, and never will, on one of the most important women’s issues that there is but we’ll agree all day long to work together where we can.”

Bob Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at [email protected].

11/15/2016 - 3:40pm