Column: An Insider’s Tale of the Birth of the Alaska State Legislature’s Weekly Press Availabilities (KTVA.com exclusive)
Surprisingly, the Alaska Legislature didn’t always meet regularly with the press
JUNEAU - January marked the 10th anniversary of the weekly press availabilities held by the four legislative caucuses while the legislature is convened in session in Juneau.
The availabilities are so routine now, their somewhat tumultuous origin is probably not known even among many of the legislators and reporters who participate in them today.
My first year covering the Alaska Legislature was in 2001, for the Juneau Empire. Having previously covered the Minnesota Legislature for nine years, I was used to a free flow of communications between lawmakers and reporters.
This definitely was not the case in Juneau.
During that initial session, I observed:
– One press conference between the opening and closing days.
– A state senator, John Torgerson, who snapped at me on our first interaction, for posing a strictly factual inquiry.
– A Daily News reporter who had a door closed in her face by a state senator, Dave Donley, and was denounced on the senate floor by another, Loren Leman.
– A general chilliness and aversion to the media by many lawmakers, which often resulted in attempted ambush interviews due to our frequent inability to schedule interviews.
During the session, I discussed this sad state of affairs independently with Eldon Mulder, then co-chair of the House Finance Committee, and then-Senate President Rick Halford. There were numerous conversations during the four months of session.
It turned out to be darkest before the dawn.
On the final night of the session, things got ugly.
Republicans had called a press conference for midnight, right after adjournment. Then Governor Tony Knowles called one for the same time. His excuse was an early flight the next day, as I recall, for the college graduation of one of his children.
I often described the end of Knowles’ second term as “Clinton without the sex.” Republican disdain for Knowles was palpable. Many of them seemed to regard him as illegitimate, and Senator Robin Taylor once mused about impeaching Knowles if he did not appeal the Katie John subsistence case to the U.S. Supreme Court. (He didn’t; they didn’t.)
Even so, the fury resulting from the “dueling press conferences” caught the press by surprise.
Organizations with two reporters at the Capitol – including the Empire – were able to deploy one reporter to each event. But most media had only one Capitol correspondent. Those reporters had to make the choice between the events.
The choice was easy. Everyone knew that Knowles would present his proclamation for a special session on cruise ship pollution.
A couple reporters tried to cover both events. One of them was denied entry to the Speaker’s Chambers for the Republican event – actually pushed through the doorway, with the door closed in his face. One Democrat later quipped that he had heard of closed caucuses, but not of closed press conferences.
Strangely, by this time, I had become president of the Alaska Capital Correspondents Association. (Paul Queary of the Associated Press had been elected president in January, but left mid-session to take a job in Olympia, Washington. For some bizarre reason, I had been elected vice president, and ascended to the presidency with Queary’s departure.)