Rep. Knopp leaves Republican caucus, seeks new bipartisan coalition

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, speaks during a House Minority press availability, April 6, 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, speaks during a House minority press availability in April 2017. Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, is on the right. Knopp has left the Republican caucus. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

State Rep. Gary Knopp has left the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. He wants to form a new majority that includes members from both parties.

Knopp said he didn’t see a way out of the dilemma the House Republicans have had since the election. They may have had just enough members to reach a bare majority — 21 in the 40-member chamber. But that depended on two things falling into place: Bart LeBon’s one-vote lead in the race for a Fairbanks-based seat needed to hold up, and Wasilla Rep. David Eastman needed to support the caucus leadership, which he hadn’t done yet.

“We didn’t have 21 members in the caucus,” Knopp said. “We weren’t really organized, and we weren’t cohesive. And I just didn’t see an avenue for success. And I thought the best way going forward was this coalition consideration. And I couldn’t get my side interested in the conversation. And knowing we were doomed to fail, I just had to push the issue.”

Knopp was first elected two years ago from a district that includes Kenai and Soldotna. He said it wouldn’t be productive to have a caucus where any one member could control the agenda. He was particularly concerned about Eastman, who frequently was the only vote against bills and amendments the past two years.

“He’s a gentleman that you can’t count on,” Knopp said. “You don’t know what he’s going to do or when he’s going to do it. If you go back in history and take a look at his 79 ‘no’ votes in the House last year, I mean, why would you expect (him to vote) differently this year?”

Eastman defended his approach.

“I work for my district,” he said. “And that’s the caucus that I work for. And to the extent that other caucuses line up with what’s best for the people of my district and Alaska, then they can count on my vote. And if they are not able to persuade me of that, then they can probably expect me not to vote for whatever that policy is.”

Eastman added that he wants to know who is in a Republican-led caucus before he could give his stamp of approval to it. And he wants the Republicans’ pick for House speaker — Dave Talerico of Healy — to support repealing the 2016 criminal justice law known as SB 91.

Knopp said a bipartisan coalition would act as a counterweight to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, while an all-Republican caucus wouldn’t.

“You’re going to have that bloc of legislators who are going to support the governor’s agenda and a bunch of us who are not,” Knopp said. “And it will divide our caucus even more. And so we have to have that diversity in the House amongst members’ parties around the state.”

While Knopp said he agrees with some of Dunleavy’s agenda, he disagrees with him on other issues, like whether to enshrine Permanent Fund dividends in the state constitution.

Knopp said he would like to see a coalition with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats in leadership roles. The coalition would not deal with some controversial issues, like adding a broad-based tax or changing oil and gas taxes.

Three Republicans joined the mostly-Democratic House majority the past two years. One of them — Homer Rep. Paul Seaton — was defeated this year after the Alaska Republican Party opposed him. Seaton ran as a Democratic-endorsed independent.

But Knopp said he wasn’t focused on his political future when he decided to leave the caucus.

“There are other legislators on my side of the aisle who acknowledge and know that a coalition should happen, needs to happen and won’t step forward because of fear of retribution from the party and constituents as well,” he said. “And it’s a genuine fear and … I guess (I have) a different position. I’m not worried about the next election”

Knopp said he’s still a Republican and considers himself to be socially and fiscally conservative. He said he’s being realistic.

“The worst thing we can do is not address these problems now and go to Juneau and implode while in the middle of session, and that’s what I feared was going to happen. I didn’t see any chance for success inside our caucus because of our makeup,” he said.

He doesn’t see himself joining a predominantly Democratic caucus.

“I’ll still get to vote and vote my conscience on every single issue without bias,” he said. “If they don’t give me committee assignments and don’t want me back in the caucus, I’m good with that. I mean, I made my bed. I’m OK with that.”

There are just over five weeks left until the Jan. 15 start to the legislative session.

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