In this Feb. 4, 2016, photo, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker bowls with fellow legislators and staff in Juneau, Alaska. It was his first night of bowling with the legislative bowling leagues. Bipartisan, bicameral bowling has been a staple of Alaska's legislative session for nearly 30 years. (AP Photo/Rashah McChesney)

In this Feb. 4, 2016, photo, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker bowls with fellow legislators and staff in Juneau, Alaska. It was his first night of bowling with the legislative bowling leagues. Bipartisan, bicameral bowling has been a staple of Alaska's legislative session for nearly 30 years. (AP Photo/Rashah McChesney)

Bipartisan bowling: Alaska politicians roll off steam

JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska lawmakers gather each week in the state capital ready to rumble, but it’s not to continue their already tense and rocky negotiations over the $3.5 billion budget deficit.

Or some other partisan issue.

Republicans and Democrats alike assemble, inside a bowling alley, to talk strikes, spares and gutter balls. There’s even room for lobbyists, legislative staff and, for the first time in 30 years, a seated governor.

This year, Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, is on the same team as the Republican House speaker, Mike Chenault.

“We may have our differences of opinion on how we do things. The goal is still the same,” said Chenault, adding that he and Walker rarely talk shop — like Medicaid expansion or building a multibillion natural gas pipeline — at the alley.

Bipartisan events like the bowling league do happen elsewhere.

In Oklahoma, lawmakers in the Senate challenge their House colleagues in a softball game every year.

In Idaho, lawmakers go to the shooting range and had their first bipartisan go-cart racing night this month. And in Maryland, members gather for a spirited chess tournament.

In Alaska, the bowling league, started three decades ago by legislators and staff, was engineered to encourage cross-aisle play at the alley.

And if that spills over to civil discussions in the House and Senate chambers, that’s only a bonus.

A former Republican state senator, the late Tim Kelly, started the league in 1987.

Longtime legislative aide Jack Armstrong, whose team is named Fishy Cabinet, said Kelly’s bowling ball has become a roving trophy awarded to each year’s winning team. Armstrong has been involved with the league since the late-1980s.

The bipartisan mix of legislators, aides and lobbyists on each team was encouraged, he said, and continues today.

“It’s just a way to get away from the building and enjoy the company of the people you work with,” Armstrong said.

A tinny version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend” blared over the speakers during league play on a recent Thursday evening.

The air thickened with the heavy thud of bowling balls hitting polished wooden floors, pins rattling and people rushing in from late committee meetings — trading heels or loafers for bowling shoes.

The governor warmed up for his inaugural game alongside Chenault and his other teammates, including two Democrats from the House and two staff members for Republican lawmakers.

Nearby, Walker’s wife, Donna Walker, and his press secretaries sat at a table watching the game.

“Does the cheering section need a pitcher of beer?” said Democrat state Rep. Les Gara, of Anchorage, as he traded his pinstripe button up for a red T-shirt and waited for the rest of his team, named Strike Back.

After Gara’s teammates arrived, they helped raise the noise level of the bowling alley as they cheered each other on.

Kim Skipper, a staff member for a Republican House member, could barely contain her enthusiasm for the game.

She jumped down the steps leading to the team’s table and lane, running to high-five Gara when he picked up a split or leaning comically far to one side or the other, hoping to keep Republican Rep. Steve Thompson’s ball out of the gutter.

“We don’t get along well at the Capitol, but we love to bowl,” said Thompson, of Fairbanks. “Inside the building, they build up sort of false impressions of people across the aisle. Here, they get to know them and see that’s kind of silly.”

Associated Press writers Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland; Kimberlee Kruesi in Boise, Idaho, and Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

More in News

The Homer Spit is evacuated during the July 28 tsunami warning at about 10:50 p.m. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)
Tsunami warning test scheduled for Wednesday morning

The National Weather Service will conduct a statewide test of the tsunami… Continue reading

A mock up of the Soldotna Field House. (Photo via City of Soldotna)
Soldotna designates field house funds

Construction of a field house in Soldotna took a step forward last… Continue reading

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, speaks during a meeting of the House State Affairs committee on Tuesday, March 28, 2023 in Juneau, Alaska. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
Carpenter, Ruffridge target state finances

The central Kenai Peninsula’s representatives in the Alaska House of Representatives have… Continue reading

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
COVID-19: Local cases fall after last week’s spike

After a spike of 50 new COVID-19 cases was reported in the… Continue reading

A tripod set by the Soldotna and Kenai Rotary Clubs stands over the ice of the Kenai River in Soldotna, Alaska on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Local Rotary Clubs testing new contest for next winter

The Rotary Clubs of Soldotna and Kenai are performing a test in… Continue reading

Alaska State Troopers logo.
State Trooper convicted of attempted sexual abuse of a minor

Vance Peronto, formerly an Alaska State Trooper based in Soldotna, was convicted… Continue reading

Soldotna City Hall is seen on Wednesday, June 23, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna moves ahead with staff recruitment strategies

Soldotna City Council members last week gave city administration a thumbs up… Continue reading

State representatives Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, and Andi Story, D-Juneau, offering competing amendments to a bill increasing the per-student funding formula for public schools by $1,250 during a House Education Committee meeting Wednesday morning. McKay’s proposal to lower the increase to $150 was defeated. Story’s proposal to implement an increase during the next two years was approved, after her proposed amounts totalling about $1,500 were reduced to $800.
Borough, Soldotna call on Legislature to increase school funding

The City of Soldotna last week became the latest entity to call… Continue reading

Kenai River Brown Bears goalie Nils Wallstrom celebrates winning a shootout over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Saturday, March 25, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Brown Bears sweep Ice Dogs, move into 3rd place

The Kenai River Brown Bears earned a two-game sweep over the Fairbanks… Continue reading

Most Read