Renegade Alaska House member makes his case: “This partisan thing has been killing us”

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 news conference in 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Last month, Republican state Rep. Gary Knopp of Kenai threw the state House into disarray.

After the fall election, Republicans thought they had 21 votes — barely enough to form a majority in the 40-member chamber. But Knopp abandoned the group, saying its hold on power was too shaky.

Since then, he’s pushed for a coalition balanced between Democrats and Republicans. But with the start of the session just one week away, lawmakers from the two parties are still in a standoff, with Knopp caught in the middle.

Knopp, from his home in Kenai, talked with Nat Herz of Alaska’s Energy Desk about why he struck out on his own. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Alaska’s Energy Desk: Can you explain to me how you decided to leave the group of 21 Republicans?

Rep. Gary Knopp: We had zero chance of success. Any single member would hold veto power. We’d have to walk in lockstep on every single policy issue and budget issue. No chance of that happening. Zero chance. And I didn’t want to be part of that. I could see it – when you’d sit through the organizational meetings and you’d look at the questions that were posed and the answers that were given, (they) left everything as ambiguous as you could possibly imagine. No clear cut answers. My side was so hellbent on maintaining control, they didn’t care about success of the caucus. They cared about being in control.

[Republicans may take control of the Alaska Capitol. But don’t expect to hear ‘kumbaya’ just yet.]

Some of the veteran legislators – what they wanted to do is go down (to Juneau) as 21. They wanted to go down on a wing and a prayer and say, “We’ll get to Juneau and then the Democrats will come join us and bolster our numbers.” Well, if you know any of the Democrat-led coalition, that simply was not going to happen. They knew how fragile we were, and they weren’t going to come over and boost our numbers. I could see that implosion coming once we got Juneau in session. And I wanted to fix it now, not fall apart once we got there. And since I couldn’t get anybody entertaining the idea of the coalition, my idea was to weaken the numbers. Make them realize you’re going to have to have the talk because you do not have 21.

AED: Do you think the current majority is really going to be able to find 10 other members of the Republican group to break away from that group, or even any members at all? Anyone who’s done that has put themselves right in the line of fire of the party and Republican primary voters. Am I wrong?

GK: Yeah, you are. There’s a big difference between jumping ship to shift the balance of power to a different party, and working across party lines to get something done. And that’s why I took the position: I’m leaving the Republican caucus because it won’t function, but I’m not joining the Democrats for the exact same reason. They will not function with a small majority either. You’re right, one or two won’t come. Three or four won’t come. They need to have the discussion as a group, agree to coalesce and work together. That’s what they have to do.

AED: So, you think it’s going to take a larger group than one or two or three Republicans being willing to join a coalition. It really has to be like eight or 10?

GK: Absolutely. The more you can get to participate, the better body you’ll have. The more functionality you have.

AED: How long do you think we might still have to wait before a coalition majority comes together?

GK: I’d like to say tomorrow. But it could be weeks.

AED: One more problem I see envisioning your kind of coalition is that the majority from last year still seems so rock solid. Do you think it’s realistic to expect a group from that coalition to break off and join a similar group of Republicans? Or do you think it’s a question of getting most of the Republicans to start working together with last year’s majority?

GK: There’s nobody breaking off. You’ve got to get the Republicans to agree to work across the party lines. That’s the barrier. If they choose that they just absolutely will not, then they will sit in the minority by themselves. That’s a personal decision they can make. I have no idea why somebody who would maintain their principles and values wouldn’t work with whoever it took to get that stuff done.

AED: So, you think it’s not last year’s coalition that has a problem with working across party lines and forming an organization? It’s really the Republicans that are demanding purity, and who are going to have to be willing to compromise to make things work?

GK: You’re spot on. The current coalition, in my conversations with their leadership people, and them reaching out to their members, have expressed no concerns. They’ve been very supportive of the coalition concept. I can’t say the same for my side of the aisle. They’re willing to do a coalition if they’re controlling everything. The conversations started with, ‘There can be no Democrats in leadership.’ Well, that’s a nonstarter in negotiations.

They’ve come off of that a little bit. Different positions have been offered. But it still gives a slant, and that’s a nonstarter.

AED: Can you talk to me a little bit about how you think the Republican Party could either be part of the solution or is part of the problem here? The Republican Party, in the past, has gone after their own members who have worked across party lines and caucused with Democrats. Are you expecting that, and do you think that’s an obstacle to your goal of forming a balanced coalition?

GK: It absolutely is an obstacle. People are afraid of the party eating their own, attacking their own, which they did the last couple of years. But in the party’s defense, they only went after those who jumped party lines and shifted the balance of power. In a way, I understand that.

The party supported a lot of the new incumbents. We’ve got seven new Republican legislators this year who won due to the support of the party. So, they’re very cautious. And they count on some of the people who’ve been there a while.

What I did do was call the new chair of the Republican Party, Glenn Clary. I’ve never met the man, but I introduced myself and I said, ‘Glenn, I want you to know: I didn’t abandon my party. I didn’t abandon my Republican values or my principles, my conservative nature. What I abandoned was a Republican caucus that was dysfunctional, had no chance of success. You guys helped create this problem. You ought to be reaching out trying to help fix it. You need to be reaching out to the members and encourage them to start talking about a coalition, working across the party lines.’

People get it confused. Working across party lines doesn’t mean you’re jumping ship to the other side. It means you’re willing to work with the other members of the House that were elected. You wonder sometimes, when you’re elected in a district representing 17,000 people: Do you think you’re just representing Republicans? You’re representing the Libertarians, the Democrats, undeclared, independents. We’re representing all them people. It’s absolutely ludicrous to do what we do. This partisan thing has been killing us for years, to no gain. And it’s really time for it to end.

The Republican Party hasn’t attacked me in this. I haven’t heard a word from them. They may at some point in the future. I don’t know. We’ll see how this plays out. I think the best thing that can happen to the Republicans, or even the Democrats if they want to claim credit, is the fact that we coalesce. And we go down there and we perform like people expect us to do. And we come out of there in 90 days or 100 days, having done our business. Addressing the big things on the agenda, which are the crime reform, the PFD and the budget. People don’t want to be naming state birds and amphibious frogs when we’ve got serious things to talk about right now.

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