Josiah Patkotak elected speaker in unorganized Alaska House of Representatives

An Alaska Native woman with a baby sling aroundd her stands next to a man in a bolo tie
Flora Atqaqsaaq Patkotak (left) holds Elijah Moses Patkotak as she visits her husband, Rep. Josiah Patkotak, on his first day in office as the Representative for House District 40 on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Alaska House of Representatives elected a temporary speaker on Thursday. Independent Representative Josiah Patkotak from Utqiagvik will preside over the House until there’s a permanent speaker.

Seventeen days into the legislative session, this is the first action the House has successfully taken.

The step doesn’t resolve the divide that has prevented the chamber from picking a permanent speaker and organizing committees or from considering legislation.

Patkotak was elected in November at the age of 26, and is the second-youngest member of the House.

He expressed optimism in his first words after taking the gavel.

“First off, I’d like to say thank you for the vote of confidence, and we’ll get through whatever we’re getting through right now,” he said.

The vote for Patkotak was 39 to zero. Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr was absent.

There were no nominations for permanent speaker.

As an independent, Patkotak has been seen as a potentially important vote in determining the House majority. On previous votes for temporary speaker, he has joined the members of the former House majority coalition, which includes 15 Democrats, three other independents and Kodiak Republican Representative Louise Stutes. Patkotak’s fellow “bush caucus” members — representing predominantly rural districts in northern and western Alaska — are members of the coalition.

Tok Republican Representative Mike Cronk nominated Patkotak, who was the only nominee on Thursday. Anchorage Democratic Representative Matt Claman moved for a vote.

During a recess in the floor session, Claman said, “It’s a positive step… But it doesn’t get us to a speaker.”

Patkotak is one of only two independents who were elected without winning a party nomination, along with Ketchikan Rep. Daniel Ortiz.

Over the previous 16 days, the House split 20-20 on all nominees for temporary speaker, including Fairbanks Republican Bart LeBon, Anchorage Republican Laddie Shaw and Nome Democrat Neal Foster.

The House is scheduled to hold another floor session on Friday morning.