Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
Getting in the spirit of the (campaign) season
There are loads of people filing for office and a few that are declining to run again, but let's take a look at three biggest ones from this week.
Happy Friday, Alaska!
In this edition: It’s starting to feel a lot like campaign season as loads of people file to run for office and a few are announcing that they won’t, but let’s take a look at the three biggest names to enter or leave the race this week and what that means about the state of politics, the outlook for the Legislature and where Ballot Measure 2 fits in with it all. Also, we finally got confirmation of one of the Bronson administration’s most brazen attack on the separation of powers and transparency. The reading list and weekend watching.
In with the new and the renewed
This week, we saw what have been—to my eyes—the three most significant campaign announcements for the 2022 legislative elections. Former Senate President Cathy Giessel announced that she’s running for her old Senate seat, extreme-right Anchorage Assemblymember and Nazi-plate sympathizer (yeesh, that seems like ages ago!) Jamie Allard will run for the newly vacant Eagle River House seat and moderate-by-comparison Fairbanks Republican Rep. Steve Thompson announced he will be retiring.
First, the changes to the House reflect a larger trend of moderate-leaning politicians opting to leave elected office rather than continue to deal with the accelerating run to the extreme right. Thompson, as one of the very few members of the Republican minority to have any experience in a majority caucus, hasn’t been having a great time caucusing with the likes of Reps. David Eastman, Kevin McCabe and everyone else. He and fellow Republican Rep. Bart LeBon (who’s also still weighing his decision to seek re-election) broke away from the core of the Republican minority this session as the extremists—who are all newcomers who’ve never been in a position of any responsibility in the Legislature—pushed the state to a shutdown.
When faced between a decision to continue to spend upwards of six months in Juneau dealing with that and retiring to spend that time with his 10-year-old son Max, it’s not even a decision to be made.
The departure of Thompson will be a hit for the Legislature and for Fairbanks. While covering the Legislature for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, I always found Thompson to be a reasonable legislator who cared deeply about working for the betterment of Fairbanks and worked effectively across the political aisle as long as it meant doing what’s right (a quality that seems rare among the extreme right). I’m not personally familiar with the GOP candidates lining up to fill his shoes, but it’s hard to see how any of them can fill Thompson’s shoes.
Meanwhile, the Alaska Redistricting Board has cut a clear path for Anchorage Assemblymember Allard to run for the House by pairing together Eagle River Reps. Kelly Merrick and Ken McCarty together (who are now both vying for the open Eagle River/JBER/Downtown Anchorage Senate seat). We can spend loads of time talking about Allard’s politics but suffice it to say that she’ll be at home among the likes of Reps. Eastman, McCabe, Sarah Vance and Ben Carpenter. In the grand scheme of things, it’s probably a sigh of relief for those concerned primarily about Anchorage politics as Allard would go from one of 11 on the Anchorage Assembly to one of 40 in the House, where she’ll be just one of a dozen deeply conservative and obstructionist legislators.
Both of these represent areas where two moderate Republican seats—Thompson’s seat and the seat previously held by Rep. Merrick, who caucuses with the bipartisan coalition—will swing far to the right. At least that’s under the old political thinking.
The biggest thing to keep in mind with all of this is the arrival of the new election system approved by voters last year. The open primary system and ranked choice voting are a path to a more moderate representation, at least that’s the pitch of its supporters.
If you take Eagle River for example, Allard nearly beat Rep. Merrick in the 2018 primary election. If she had, Merrick would’ve been sidelined, and Allard would have certainly cruised to election over Democrat Joe Hackenmueller. But imagine if that race was rerun under the new election system. Merrick, Allard, Hackenmueller and Republican Eugene Harnett would have all progressed to the general election. In the real-world race between Merrick and Hackenmueller, the Hackenmueller won 36.7% of the vote. Under old standards, the outcome of the race was never in question but under the new formula that 36.7% of the vote becomes critical with the Republican candidates splitting the remaining vote. Instead of appealing solely to the Republican primary voters, candidates must appeal more broadly if they want to garner the votes of the third- and fourth-place finishers. The tricky thing is, of course, that you need to survive the initial rounds.
The big hitch, however, with all of that is that for a moderate to win under the Ballot Measure 2 system, there needs to be a moderate in the race in the first place. A moderate who’s willing to put up with all the ire from the extreme right that’s driving away good, reasonable representation at pretty much every level of government. It also requires that moderate to be well-funded, well-supported and run a halfway decent campaign that appeals to Democrats and moderates alike.
In world where party purity still carries plenty of weight, that’s a tall order.
Which brings me to Giessel’s entry into the race. It’s not all that surprising given that back in the days when she was in the Republican super minority, which was owed no committee seats, showing up to the Senate Resources Committee with massive binder in tow and more prepared than those sitting at the table. Giessel has been long eyeing a return to public office after losing in the Republican primary to Sen. Roger Holland. Again, this is a race where ranked choice voting could make the difference as the Holland didn’t achieve an outright majority in the general election. It’s impossible to really game out how that race would’ve gone had Giessel made it to the general election ballot, but I doubt she would be giving it another run if the old rules were still in place.
I’ll pause here to also point out that Giessel isn’t exactly a moderate. After all, that super minority (with Sens. John Coghill, Fred Dyson and Charlie Huggins) was really only tied together because they were all staunchly anti-abortion. What she is, though, is a Republican unwilling to hand over the keys to Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
Sidenote: And it’s also after all this writing that I’m starting to see why several liberals I’ve talked to weren’t all that thrilled about ranked choice voting. If this whole thing works as expected—a big if—then it’ll give moderates Republicans an easier path to office in not just conservative districts but in moderate districts that would be winnable by a Democrat going up against whatever far-right Republican comes out of the primary. There’s certainly a bit of pragmatism in progressives supporting conservatives who at the very least oppose Dunleavy (See also: Unions cozying up with Giessel), but it’s a continuation of the trend that started with the victory of Republican-turned-independent Gov. Bill Walker of training Democratic voters to note vote for Democrats.
But then again, that’s also kinda the numbers.
King Chief Executives
Speaking of Cathy Giessel, she’s had her own newsletter throughout her time off and the issues that have been passed along have all been surprisingly great. One of the observations that comes up while writing all of this and while considering the developments in the administration of Gov. Dunleavy and Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson is this one where she reflected on the veto the Legislature’s per diem. To her, it said a lot about the governor’s attitude towards the court system and the Legislature itself:
Question for Alaskans - Would you prefer to eliminate the Legislative and Judicial branches of government? This would mean that voters would have no voice in government thro
ugh the Legislature and no oversight of how laws are applied by the Judiciary. Governor Dunleavy's actions indicate that he would like to become a monarch whose policies would be unopposed by the other 2 branches.
Another question - For those who want to keep the Legislature but not pay the folks serving in the roles...Would you yourself do this work for free, leaving your profession and family for a period of time every year? The only people who would raise their hand to do this would be those who were wealthy enough to afford to do it.
Result: A Monarch Governor and wealthy elite Legislature? It sounds like the situation the Thirteen Colonies found themselves in with King George and the British Parliament (who were made up of the upper "class"). The Founders created the unique United States of America government, complete with restraints on each of the 3 branches.
And, frankly, she’s not wrong. Both Dunleavy and Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson have taken largely unprecedented steps to consolidate power in the executive branch, which in the governor’s case was already one of the strongest in the nation. What’s particularly worrisome is just how seemingly fine their core is with this. After all, I thought they were in the anti-tyranny crowd.
For Dunleavy, the party has worked tirelessly to send anyone—like Giessel—who hasn’t been on board with Dunleavy’s agenda packing, a task made that much easier with the gatekeeper of the semi-closed primary. Never mind that Giessel’s still a deeply conservative politician, it doesn’t matter when it comes to consolidating power in the right hands.
The same can be said at the Anchorage municipal level, where Bronson’s motivating factor seems to be trampling the separation of powers between the and cowing the Anchorage Assembly. While Bronson claims it’s the Anchorage Assembly that’s trying to wrest control of government away from the mayor’s office, his actions have been to the contrary, particularly around the masking fight.
There were the very public efforts like the removal of the plexiglass screens and ordering the private security to stand down during the most heated moments of the hearings, of which even the ADN’s editorial board couldn’t ignore:
The explanations that the mayor’s spokesman gave, that the plexiglass blocked testifiers’ view of some members of the Assembly and that the security officers were needed elsewhere, were transparently flimsy. Clearly, the message the administration was trying to convey was that Mayor Bronson thought he controlled the Assembly chamber, and he could make Assembly members’ lives more difficult if he wanted to.
Under Mayor Bronson’s reading of his powers, he could turn the lights off in the Assembly chambers during a meeting if he wanted. He could shut off the heat. He could order the meeting livestream terminated, cutting off public access for those watching online and putting the Assembly in violation of the Alaska Open Meetings Act. If, as the mayor asserts, he has full and exclusive custody of all municipal resources, he could even lock the doors and keep the Assembly from meeting. Clearly, that’s a wrongheaded approach to governance, and it beggars belief that Anchorage’s charter was intended to imbue the executive branch with that degree of power.
Turning off the livestream of the meeting and violating the Alaska Open Meetings Act? Oh, I’m sure that the administration that has said plenty of words about transparency and public access would never think of such a thing! Let alone put it into action!
Municipal Manager Amy Demboski did just that and the Alaska Landmine has the receipts in a scathing story published today. Per the Landmine, Demboski ran off to the audio/visual room during a particularly heated exchange in the meeting and ordered John Crabb, the video center’s director, to cut the feed. He refused, telling her that she wasn’t his boss. The feed stayed up.
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance (another person who might be in the Legislature if ranked choice voting had been in place for the 2020 election) had this to say about it:
Given that the administration also dismissed security from the chambers and removed the plexiglass shield at the same meeting, I can’t think of one charitable reason why the municipal manager attempted to stop the public broadcast of an Assembly meeting. The video feed helps inform people about the Municipality’s business being conducted. It promotes openness and transparency. I would like to hear the municipal manager explain why she interfered with the people’s business by trying to shut down the video feed. There needs to be accountability for these actions. We must protect transparency and openness and ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
The reading list
‘tis the season… to erroneously tell hundreds of retirees/survivors that their cost-of-living allowance benefits are going to be cut off. Credit to Dermot Cole for tracking down this story about the Division of Retirement and Benefits slap-dash attempt to deny nearly 600 people their cost-of-living benefits based on what turned out to be a boneheaded error in processing the list. From Reporting From Alaska: State sends threatening letter to hundreds of Alaska retirees, questioning their residency with false evidence
Some politicians might be considering hanging things up as the ire of Trump and his supporters turn on them. Not so for Alaska’s U.S. Rep. Don Young, who’s the focus of this profile that serves as a good reminder that you don’t have to be liberal or even moderate to dislike Trumpism. From The Washington Post: Don Young is the rare Republican who’s not afraid of Trump — or of saying he needs to ‘shut up’
A fascinating story about how a known “serial harasser of young women” was allowed to keep his position of power in a community before his crimes finally caught up with him. From KSTK: Louisiana jury convicts former Wrangell physician of rape
Most of the anti-vaxxer anecdotes I’ve seen lately have ended up with pain and misery for everyone involved. At least this one has a rubber arm involved. From the NY Times: A man in Italy tries to get a shot in a fake arm to qualify for a vaccination certificate.
There’s probably something you can read into this, but I haven’t been able to get enough of videos exploring and revisiting abandoned places. Several years ago, VICE produced a single season of “Abandoned” where skateboarder Rick McCrank went around various abandoned places, learned their history from people who were there in the heyday and skateboarded around them in what was a surprisingly sensitive series considering, well, all the skateboarding. They even did an episode in an abandoned cannery in B.C. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there’s any free ways to watch the series but it’s available on most services for a fee. (Personally, I like the “Ghost Mall” episode and the “Native Land” (trailer here) episode.)
But as for something that I can actually share in this space, Bright Sun Films on YouTube has been continuing on with the Abandoned series with some very good deep dives that go beyond the usual urban exploring. Just no skateboarding.
Have a nice weekend, y’all.