Of Mercenaries and Majorities

By Rep. David Eastman

There are pros and cons to having your favorite candidates win on Election Day. The pros are no secret, so I will mention some of the cons. To the voter, having your candidate win on Election Day, especially if it’s a really big win (like a presidential election), is usually your trigger to checkout from the political process for a while.

You rooted hard for your guy, and when the final score was announced, (figuratively speaking) your guy won the political world series, so instead of continuing to track baseball, maybe now it’s time to switch to basketball or hockey. In any case, rooting for your guy took time and attention away from other things. Those other things are important too, and many supporters of winning candidates checkout of politics for that reason alone.

Just know that as soon as you checkout, there’s someone standing right there, waiting to fill the vacuum. Usually that someone takes the form of a lobbyist or special interest group. They put their arm around your guy, point out how happy he made you by getting elected, and now that your attention is elsewhere, they explain that it’s time for your guy to give his attention to them. He made you happy, now he can afford to make the special interest group happy.

When he does, the tendency is for you to overlook it. After all, he’s your guy. Meanwhile, the lobbyist keeps pointing out to your guy that the next election is a really long way away, and you will probably have forgotten about whatever he did long before it’s time for him to start campaigning again.

And often times the lobbyist is right, you won’t remember. In fact, the lobbyists and politicians count on it. This phenomenon plays out election after election in every state capital, and it makes the period of time immediately after an election one of the most important. It’s at this point that those in office are counting noses to see who is still left in the room. And while the cat’s away, the mice can play.

I have a name for the weeks right after an election. I call it “Mercenary Search”. You see, once candidates are elected, Juneau immediately absolves them of any campaign promises they made, and any allegiances they have to the positions of their political party: “It’s what you had to say and do to get elected. We understand. We won’t hold it against you. Now let’s get down to business.”

In the Alaska House of Representatives, most decisions are made by a majority of the 40 elected legislators. So if you want to control a particular decision you only need to know how 21 of those legislators are going to vote. The other 19 might vote with you, or they might not—but it doesn’t matter. As a legislator, if you line up 20 other legislators behind you, your policy is going to pass. With 21, you also can kill any policy you don’t feel like supporting.

In high school government class, you might have envisioned legislators sitting around debating the merits of this policy or that policy before passing a law. That’s too exhausting. Most things become law through a very different process. “Mercenary Search” plays an important part in that process.

Immediately after an election, the search for legislative mercenaries begins. A mercenary is a legislator who will vote the way you want them to, not because they believe in a particular policy, but simply because it’s you who is asking them to. As a legislator, if you can find 20 legislative mercenaries willing to vote with you whenever you ask them to, you never again have to worry about the debate going your way. You can lose the debate magnificently, but still be assured of winning the day if there are 20 other legislators who will vote your way.

It also makes you the most powerful person in the state house. If legislators have already committed to do what you ask, lobbyists in need of a policy won’t waste time talking with those other legislators—they’ll come straight to you.

Of course, mercenaries aren’t free. They like to be paid, and each will have negotiated something in return for their services. For one legislator, it might be your support in getting a particular policy passed. For another, it might be a particular leadership position or committee assignment with a larger office and more staff to work for them.

With 20 other legislators behind you, you control who runs every committee, which bills become law, how many employees a legislator can hire, who gets which office in the capital building; pretty much everything- even down to which parking space each legislator gets assigned. In other words, you have plenty of booty to dole out in exchange for continued loyalty from the other 20. And no matter how bad the policy is that you are voting for, each of the 21 legislators can point out that they shouldn’t receive too much criticism because 20 other legislators voted for it too.

“Mercenary Search” ends when all of the legislators willing to offer their services in exchange for booty have been recruited. That number may be zero, or it may be 39 (note: it’s a high enough number that every new legislator is assumed automatically to be a mercenary on some level until proven otherwise). If you can’t find any mercenaries to join a binding caucus, then you may have to do the unthinkable—you may have to try to sell each legislator individually on the merits of every single bill. But that would be ridiculous—it’s much, much easier to just recruit a majority of legislative mercenaries, if you can find them.

Rep. David Eastman has served in the Alaska State House representing the Mat-Su since 2017; He ran on a platform of fighting for genuine conservative reform, fiscally and socially, and remains committed to delivering on that promise.