Campaigns sprouting after redistricting plan approved


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Campaign signs are sprouting like wildflowers around the state and legislative candidates are knocking on doors as campaigns for the Aug. 28 primary election get into full swing.

The state redistricting board has shifted boundaries of many districts in the state, which happens every 10 years as adjustments to population changes are made, and because of that every state senator except Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, have to run for reelection.

Usually only half of the 20-member senate, whose members serve four-year terms, is up for reelection every other year, but the rules this year are different because of reapportionment. State House members have to run every election anyway because they serve two-year terms.

The shift in legislative district boundaries have put some incumbents into changed districts. There are always complaints. Some Democrat incumbents feel that the reapportionment board, appointed by Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, moved boundaries so they must face voters in neighborhoods with more Republican voters.

When a Democratic governor appoints the reapportionment board, Republican incumbents make similar complaints.

This year is unusual, however, because litigation over the redistricting plan is unresolved. The state Supreme Court is allowing the primary and general elections to proceed under the plan drawn up by the redistricting board, but the issues will be revisited and there may be a new plan, and may be new districts again, in the 2014 elections.

The U.S. Justice Department has approved the Alaska plan for the 2012 elections.

The legal challenges are over changes in rural districts, and particularly the board’s combining of west Fairbanks suburbs with Yukon River valley villages populated by Alaska Natives. Under federal law the ethnic integrity of communities dominated by minorities, in this case Alaska Natives, can’t be disturbed.

Taylor Bickford, state redistricting board director, said the legal standard is that districts be “controlled” by Alaska Natives, which can mean a Native population under 50 percent in a community.

Still, there are other effects of changes than just the numbers. For example, one factor that the courts may consider in the west Fairbanks-Lower Yukon district is that the more affluent Fairbanks residents vote more regularly than do villagers along the Yukon who are typically busy with subsistence, particularly at the time primary elections are held.

Beyond the legal challenges, there were other changes in rural districts that are causing angst. Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, who is unopposed in either primary or general election, said the board carved up a compact district that included Bethel, a “hub” community in western Alaska and 20 nearby villages where Bethel is the primary support center.

Some of the villages were put into a district that included Dillingham and Bristol Bay, and other communities went into other districts. Herron’s point is that this fragmentation may complicate the Bethel House member’s ability to advocate for services and programs for the region, and likewise complicate work for members who represent larger populated areas like the Dillingham area.

However, not all the changes are unpopular, at least for this year. Emmonak, in the Lower Yukon, is delighted that it is now included in the Senate district represented by Sen. Lyman Hoffman, an influential Bethel senator who, like Herron, is unopposed in the primary or general election.

An interesting twist is that while the carving off of west Fairbanks to include the lower Yukon villages adds a complication, it also means the entire region including west Fairbanks is now represented in the Senate by Hoffman. Fairbanks has always had an influential legislative delegation but the addition of a powerful rural senator in representing even part of the community is viewed positively in the Interior city.

Fairbanks’ population gains have also resulted in the addition of a new senate district and changes in two other districts.

In the new district former state labor commissioner “Click” Bishop is campaigning against Ralph Seekins, a former state senator. In a reconfigured district, two veteran incumbent Interior senators, Sen. Joe Thomas, a Democrat, and Sen. John Coghill, a Republican, are squared off against each other in the general election.

In Southeast Alaska, however, the gradual decline in regional population has lost the region one entire House seat and has reconfigured the Senate districts so that incumbent Sen. Al Kookesh, a Democrat of Angoon, is facing Sen. Bert Stedman, a Republican of Sitka.

The House district of Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, was reconfigured but in a way that gives Thomas communities with large Alaska Native populations similar to those he now represents.

Population gains in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have meanwhile resulted in an entirely new House district being created there. There are also shifts in boundaries of existing districts.

The state reapportionment process is always complicated and controversial. This year the board had to juggle boundaries to adjust for population growth in some regions, particularly the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and losses in other areas, like Southeast Alaska.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” rule, legislative districts must have equal populations, although there is some leeway. Bickford, the redistricting board director, said the 2010 census population count of 710,231 means that the “ideal” district size is 17,755.

To achieve this in parts of the state where population is declining, such as in Southeast and some rural areas, means inevitably that districts are changed and some population from large communities is placed in districts with rural communities.

This has happened in the past. For several years parts of south Anchorage were combined with the Kenai Peninsula senate district, although currently Anchorage districts are more compact.

Also, this year the size and configuration of some senate districts is unusual. For example, a changed Senate District T cuts a wide east-west swath across the middle of the state from the Seward Peninsula and Saint Lawrence Island to Tok, in east central Alaska, and lightly populated areas to the south, to the Gulf of Alaska coast.

The present senate district is equally off, stretching from Angoon, in Southeast, to the Interior’s Yukon River and extended southwest along that river almost to the Bering Sea coast. Several rural senate districts are as large as many U.S. states.

Aside from changed districts and the number of candidates running, this year’s election has six House members who are unopposed in either the primary or general elections, as well as one unopposed senator, Hoffman.

The unopposed House members include Bethel’s Rep. Bob Herron; Rep. Alan Austerman; the two Juneau House members, Beth Kerttula and Cathy Munoz; House Speaker Mike Chenault, of Nikiski; and Fairbanks’ Rep. Steve Thompson.

There are 13 House races and nine Senate races where there are no primary opponents, with only one challenger in both the Republican and Democratic camps; 16 House races and seven senate races where there are multiple Republican candidates but only one Democratic challenger; and five races and one Senate race where Democrats have multiple primary candidates.

 

Tim Bradner can be reached at tim.bradner@alaskajournal.com.

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