Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
Loaded for bear
The standstill as the Alaska Capitol grapples with its first case of covid-19, talking about a very dumb floor speech and a far better committee hearing.
Happy Friday, Alaska! We’ve made it through yet another week.
From 60 to zero
Just as things were starting to feel like “normal” following the House’s torturous 31 days without organization, everything came crashing to a halt this week following Tok Republican Rep. Mike Cronk’s covid-19 diagnosis on Wednesday evening. Much of the business has either been canceled or moved online while the building’s contact tracers untangle the potential exposures created by Cronk and the 15 close contacts he racked up during three days of working in the Legislature. Understandably, there’s been a lot of frustration and anger over the whole case—not helped by what sure looks like Cronk’s attempt to blame it on Juneau and not his traveling to attend the Alaska Outdoor Council’s fundraiser in Palmer without a mask. “It’s like going from zero to 60 back to zero,” one politico said of the frustration about the stalled out business.
It’s unclear just if and when things will get back to “normal” as they work out potential other cases and adapt to online-focused hearings. While the House hasn’t voted to update its rules regarding remote floor sessions (apparently out of a mixture of opposition from both the anti-capitol move crowd and the extreme-right), committees can do nearly everything remotely except for advance legislation, which requires committee members to physically sign reports. House Speaker Louise Stutes announced that moving forward, the House will be working weekends to make up for lost time.
There’s also been something ranging from anger to exhaustion over the fact that Cronk brought the virus into the building after a month of things going reasonably well. Like Reinbold’s flouting of masks, the carelessness reinforces the message that some number of folks in the building can’t be bothered to go through the basic inconvenience of caring about the health of others. A lot of folks feel like they’re in the dark about what’s going on, though that can likely be chalked up to the fact that to be considered a close contact, you need to be in their presence for 15 minutes. Passing by in the hallway is probably not particularly risky. Still, there are quite a few legislators and staffers who are closely watching the tape from the several hearings Cronk attended this week.
Rep. Sara Rasmussen’s announcement about restarting the Legislature’s Women’s Caucus with Rep. Ivy Spohnholz should have been a happier announcement on Wednesday than it was. That’s because, as you’ve likely heard by now, it was immediately followed up by an incredibly dumb birthday speech for Rasmussen by Rep. Zack Fields. In one of his later apologies, he tried to explain that his comments remarking upon and sexualizing Rasmussen’s body were an attempt to poke fun at a Facebook post. It was a bad look on its own and an even worse look when it was coming directly after the announcement of the Women’s Caucus, which is borne out of precisely these kind of sexist and demeaning treatment from male colleagues of all political stripes. Plus, when the comment section of Must Read Alaska thinks you’re funny, then you can be pretty sure you’ve messed up. His first attempt at an apology didn’t go over well but his second apology and follow-up efforts seem to show at least a little more awareness of the deep hole he’s dug for himself.
Should Rep. Fields resign? Probably not, and acting like his conduct is a repeat of the criminal activities of former representatives doesn’t help anyone. (That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t face political consequences at the next election.)
The whole thing is a reminder for men that no matter how progressive you think you are, or how much you’ve done for the progressive cause, you still have room for improvement. What was so frustrating about Fields’ comments is that sort of thing isn’t new, but something women in Alaska politics have been putting up with in one form or another forever.
Apologizing, being open and honest about your mistake, and taking the consequences on the chin is a start.
It should also be pointed out that this isn’t anyone’s job but Fields’ to clean up. Not Rasmussen’s, not women in the capitol, and not women in his office. It’s not a woman’s job to prove that sexism exists or hold your hand on your personal journey to be better (but if you must, here’s a Friday in the Sun column where we reached out to many different women from many different fields of Alaska politics to candidly talk about their experiences that is a start).
If you want to feel better about gender equity in the Alaska Legislature, then be sure to check out Thursday’s hearing of the House Health and Social Services Committee where Reps. Tiffany Zulkosky, Liz Snyder and Ivy Spohnholz had far more important things to do than picking up after Fields: Namely, pushing around Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum over the utterly inadequate explanation of why his department has been so hard to oversee that it must be split during a pandemic with next to no legislative oversight.
The trio came loaded for bear, shooting holes in Crum’s half-hearted defense of the plan left and right. Best I can tell, the whole plan seems to be focused on addressing turnover problems at the Office of Children’s Services—a very real and very serious problem that has plagued the agency—and that the only solution is to split the entire department into two with a new slate of executive jobs (while cutting loads of jobs in the Division of Public Assistance). There’s also something in there about synergy, trimming the number of hats people want to wear, and, of course, efficiencies.
A big concern is the speed at which the whole plan was announced and is coming together—less than six months—and the lack of meaningful engagement with stakeholder groups all over the state. Specifically, there’s significant concerns about its impact on the Office of Children’s Services’ federal funding.
Asked if there was a transition plan, Crum said there really doesn’t need to be one because everyone’s emails and phone numbers will be the same (they’re just getting an entirely new slate of unknown bosses). Asked if they’ve had any outside groups evaluate and provide input on the plan, Crum admitted they hadn’t, but said, without evidence, that “this is absolutely the best way to provide better services to Alaskans.” Asked about outreach to affected communities, Crum talked about having conversations (failing to mention that most of those conversations have left groups with more questions and concerns). It was not particularly inspiring.
"What I'm hearing is there is a lack of leadership capacity,” Spohnholz said at one point, wondering why, in the middle of a pandemic and budget crisis, the state was pushing ahead with a plan that would cost about $5 million more every year.
They were largely unimpressed with the administration’s claims that it would cut the budget because most of the cuts they point to—reductions to the Division of Public Assistance, namely—were already made under the existing structure.
However, with the abbreviated session and everything else going on, it’s not entirely clear whether the Legislature will be able pump the brakes on this plan. The budget—where the administration will still need to get funding for the plan—is likely the big decision point.
Politico did an interesting rundown on the makeup of state legislatures and how they reflect or, more often than not, don’t reflect the state they represent. Alaska had one of the biggest gaps between its nonwhite population (39%) and nonwhite representation in the Legislature (13%) during last year’s legislative session. It was near the top of the pack of the gender divide when it comes to Republican-leaning states (though several Republican primaries have since changed that). It’s an interesting story that also discusses some of the hurdles that face nonwhite candidates and women from gaining office (basically put, it’s white men). From Politico: Why state legislatures are still very white — and very male
Following Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s positive diagnosis for covid-19, folks recalled that he has a heart issue that, if you google it, might make things worse. But is that really the case? Well, it’s more complicated than that. Reporter Nat Herz, who has the same heart condition as Dunleavy, asked a doctor about what it means. From Nat Herz’s Twitter: I'm not a doctor, I just play one on the radio.
The week after I arrived at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner all the way back in 2011, the staff sent the outgoing reporter off with a cake emblazoned with a bright blue natural gas flame. Little did I know just how much of the next six years I’d spend reporting, writing and thinking about the Interior’s never-ending quest to expand the availability of natural gas. When I rode along with crews installing pipeline in North Pole in 2015, there was talks about miniature pipelines, mega trucks and buildout plans that would have gas flowing by 2016, 2017 at the latest! Well, this week—just a mere six years after watching the groundbreaking on the North Pole project—gas is finally flowing to North Pole. “Good things come to those who wait,” North Pole Mayor Mike Welch said during remarks at the event. “We’ve waited long enough.” Aside from the potentially lower price of natural gas (this is trucked LNG, after all), the big boon for the Interior is when it comes to the area’s wintertime air quality, which can get very, very bad. From the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: North Pole now has natural gas
Turns out Cordova’s anti-mask police chief Nate Taylor’s decision to flout the quarantine guidelines after a one-week out-of-state trip wasn’t a great idea. Upon returning, the police chief went on to coach a youth wrestling club and took part in a staff meeting. Now there are 19 covid cases since Taylor’s return in a community that had been free of new covid cases since Feb. 9 with zero active cases. Now, thanks to Taylor’s decisions, the community’s seen its schools closed thanks to an outbreak among students and businesses are closing voluntarily. “I don’t think this was done maliciously or intentionally, but we’ve been learning for the past year what to do to protect our community and our family and our workplace,” City Manager Helen Howarth told The Cordova Times. “I don’t want to use the word ‘unconscionable,’ but it almost is.” From The Cordova Times: Police chief who failed to quarantine linked to virus outbreak
Just one more thing
Back into the realm of video essays comes this one from PushingUpRoses (who also does excellent essays on “Murder, She Wrote” and other nostalgic television series) about the indomitable “Columbo.” Lieutenant Columbo was a mainstay of my journalism education, a frequent reference of my professors on how to be charming, play dumb and get what you’re looking for out of an interview. I didn’t actually sit down and watch “Columbo” until some rainy cooped-up weekend during session one year but immediately fell in love with Peter Falk’s portrayal of the “Ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes.” (I particularly have a soft spot for those first episodes I watched “Prescription: Murder” and “Murder by the Book.”)
Falk brought so much life and charm into Columbo in a production that really punched well above its weight in terms of quality, photography and storytelling.
Take care, everyone. I’m gonna go check out that new demo for “Outriders.” Maybe it’ll scratch that “Destiny” itch.