Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai/Soldotna, briefly returned to the peninsula from Juneau on Friday and held a town hall at the Kenai River Suites where he responded to questions and criticisms from his constituents.
Knopp has been at the center of the leadership and organizational hurdles facing the Alaska House of Representatives since their session began in January. The House recently broke the record for most consecutive days without leadership before finally nominating Rep. Bryce Edgmon, NPA-Dillingham, on Thursday.
Many of the citizens who spoke at Friday’s town hall questioned Knopp’s allegiance to the Republican Party based on his refusal to join with the other Republican representatives for what would have been a 21-person Republican caucus. Knopp defended his recent decisions in a brief opening statement at the town hall before taking questions from the audience.
“What I did after the election had nothing to do with the governor’s budget or the governor’s agenda,” Knopp said during his opening statement. Knopp said that his priority was forming a majority that could pass a budget when it came time do so, and added that that a 21-person majority would not have been strong enough to prevent conflict down the road.
“The Republican caucus, with 21 members, had no chance of success… If you know you’re going to fail, why not fix the problem now?” Knopp said, and explained that he felt it was better to ensure that the votes are there at the beginning than run into a problem at the end of the session.
“As you can see, it’s been a little more problematic than we thought,” he added before taking questions from an energized audience.
Knopp fielded more than 20 questions and statements during the town hall, with the topics ranging from Knopp’s recent actions to Gov. Dunleavy’s budget to reproductive rights.
The first person to speak said that he understood Knopp’s position, but because of the way he handled things he has lost the respect of many in his district.
“We don’t trust you now. That’s why most people are here,” the man said, referring specifically to when Knopp voted for himself after a surprise nomination that ultimately further delayed the House’s attempts to organize. “You played a trick that’s never been seen before in the history of this state, and that’s going to stick to you forever.”
Knopp did not push back on this claim. “It was a trick. It was a sleight of hand. It was unplanned,” Knopp said. He maintained that his actions left the door open for a bipartisan coalition to form. Knopp also argued that he would have been setting the Republicans up to fail later in the session by voting for the Republican nominee, Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy.
The next citizen to speak was a former representative during Alaska’s 27th Legislature, and he called into question the usefulness of bipartisan coalitions in Alaska. “When I was in the Legislature, there was a bipartisan coalition in the Senate, and nothing got done,” said Alan Dick, who represented House District 6. “If you look at the history of bipartisan coalitions, I think you’ll find that this year’s will be as ineffective as ones in the past.”
“There’s a bipartisan coalition every year,” replied Knopp. “The divide (this year) wasn’t on issues, it was on control of leadership.” He went on to explain that part of the deal in getting some of the Democratic House members to join the Majority Coalition was to split the six leadership roles evenly between the parties.
Knopp maintained throughout the town hall that he knew of several Republicans who would not vote for Dunleavy’s budget its current form, and therefore a 21-person majority would have given any single member veto power.
One attendee had a question about the fate of Dunleavy’s plan to give back the portion of PFD funds that have been withheld over the last few years, which was a key part of Dunleavy’s campaign platform. “Will all the members of this bipartisan coalition vote for Dunleavy’s PFD plan?” the attendee asked.
Knopp replied that this was not likely. “There’s no way that’s gonna happen… There are only three or four Republicans in the House who would support a full dividend,” Knopp said, stirring discontent with some members of the crowd. Knopp did not specify to whom he was referring, but said that he had spoken with all members and was certain that there was no consensus.
Questions about Knopp’s loyalty to Dunleavy and to the Republican Party came in many forms, but several people also spoke out to commend the representative for his attempts at bipartisanship in lieu of towing the party line.
Aside from the current events in the House of Representatives and the fate of Dunleavy’s budget, reproductive rights and the issue of abortion were also hot topics at the town hall. Initially, Knopp said that he would not be getting into the abortion debate on that evening, but eventually he fielded a few questions on the subject. One person asked if Knopp would support a bill that would make abortion totally illegal in all forms in the state of Alaska. Knopp said that he would most likely not support such a bill and added that abortion is not a black-and-white issue. “I’m a Catholic, so I’m not in favor of abortion by any means. That being said, there’s a lot of merit in a woman’s right to choice.”
When asked if he would support a bill that prohibits Medicaid funding from being used for abortion services, Knopp said he would support that bill and that he does not believe public funds should be used for abortion services.
One person asked if Knopp would be willing to resign or wait for a recall.
Knopp’s answer: “I’ll wait for the recall.”
When questioned on his loyalty to the Republican Party, Knopp said repeatedly that he aligns with the Republican Party platform but is not the kind of politician to “tow the party line.”
Knopp was also asked what he would do about the budget, since he stated that he felt Dunleavy’s budget went too far.
“I think he’s on the right track, but I don’t think we can do what he wants to do in a year. You can do a lot more damage than good trying to fix it all in one year,” Knopp said.
Reactions to Knopp’s answers were mixed. While some conservatives and Republicans in the crowd felt that Knopp had dodged many of their questions and found the experience disappointing overall, Michelle Vasquez, Chair of the District 30 Democrats, said she was disappointed in how people conducted themselves while asking questions.
“This is the first time I’ve seen such vitriol at an event like this,” Vasquez said. “I wish we would have stuck to the issues.”
After the town hall ended, a petition was circulated calling for Knopp’s resignation, and those with protest signs were some of the last out the door.