Senate Republicans reject Walker pick for District E seat

It’s back to square one in the process to replace former Mat-Su Sen. Mike Dunleavy.

Senate Republicans announced early Feb. 14 that they rejected Gov. Bill Walker’s appointment of Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assemblyman Randall Kowalke, a Republican from Willow, to fill the Senate District E seat.

Walker stirred the political pot Feb. 9 when he picked Kowalke because he was not one of the three individuals local Republican Party representatives selected for the governor to pick Dunleavy’s replacement from.

Dunleavy resigned from the Senate in early January to focus on his campaign for governor.

“We believe the people of District E should be given an opportunity to fill the seat with a candidate they support through the traditional process, which is designed to respect the will of the voters,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said in a Feb. 14 Senate Majority release. “The seat does not belong to us in the Senate, or the governor. The seat belongs to the people of District E.”

Walker said when made the pick that Kowalke “is the best person to represent this district” because of his background in local government, his work in Alaska’s resource development industry through former leadership positions of the Resource Development Council and the Alaska Support Industry Alliance and volunteer work.

The pick was met with disdain by Republican leaders in the Legislature who questioned why he would go outside the party’s wishes. Republican legislators have emphasized they do not have any objections to Kowalke’s qualifications, but rather wanted Walker to stick with tradition when making the pick.

“The Mat-Su held a very public process to come up with those names and the governor ignored them,” Senate President Kelly said during a Feb. 12 press briefing.

Other than being from the same political party, the governor is not obligated to pick any particular individual when filling a vacant seat, but the selection must be confirmed by a majority of the given party in the body.

Dunleavy, who was kicked out of the Majority caucus last year for voting against the operating budget, praised the Senate decision.

“I recognize and congratulate my former colleagues in the Senate that are standing in firm support of the long established process by which individuals selected to replace open senate seats represent the wishes of the people of that district,” Dunleavy said. “This isn’t a question of what is statutorily allowable, but rather what is right.”

Kowalke was one of 11 people who applied with the party to fill the seat after Dunleavy resigned but the Republicans chose Todd Smoldon of Willow, Tim Braund of Sutton and Rep. George Rauscher, who currently serves in the House.

Rauscher congratulated Kowalke on the appointment when the announcement was made and said he’s interested in hearing about Kowalke’s vision for the district.

Kelly and Micciche sent a letter to Walker Feb. 13 asking him to rethink his pick.

“We believe that the people who elected Senator Dunleavy should be given an opportunity to temporarily fill the seat with a candidate they support by providing you with a new list unless you decide one of the original three choices will suffice,” they wrote.

“In our view, this is about process and not a partisan issue,” Kelly and Micciche continued.

Walker doubled down on his choice in a quick response letter, noting that the state Constitution does not require the governor to choose from a party’s preferred list and the tradition of selecting names from a list is only in the bylaws of the Democrat and Republican parties.

“While I appreciate your concern for the Republican Party’s selection process, I am a non-partisan governor and my decisions are not based on the wishes or demands of any one party,” Walker wrote to the Senate Republicans. “Rather, my appointment of Mr. Kowalke was based solely on my sincere desire to make the best decisions for all Alaskans, including the residents of Senate District E. Mr. Kowalke is a respected leader in his community and an elected member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly with broad support.”

According to Walker, he received more support for Kowalke from Mat-Su residents and elected officials than for all the other applicants combined. Recommendations for Kowalke came from Senate Majority members as well, which Walker said he took “very seriously.”

“I have no intention of delaying the selection process by requesting additional names from the Republican party while my current appointment is still pending,” he concluded. “Should the Senate Republicans choose to reject Mr. Kowalke’s appointment, I will forward another name for consideration pursuant to requirements in the Alaska Constitution and state law.”

Walker did not choose from the list individuals recommended by Democrats in House District 40 to replace Dean Westlake who resigned before the session because of multiple sexual harassment allegations. He instead chose NANA Regional Corp. executive John Lincoln to replace Westlake, who was confirmed by House Democrats.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

02/14/2018 - 10:57am