Redistricting Board settles Senate pairings for all but Anchorage

The board’s conservatives tried to sneak through a map one member literally said would boost Eagle River’s representation, but it’s been hit legal concerns.

Good morning, Alaska!

In this edition: Monday was another long day for the Alaska Redistricting Board. After approving reasonably fair maps for the House districts, the board approved reasonable fair district pairings for the Senate… except when it came to Anchorage. There, a brazenly partisan attempt to boost Eagle River’s influence in the Senate was nearly sneaked through by the board’s conservatives before legal concerns slowed their roll. Also the reading list.

“This actually gives Eagle River the opportunity to have more representation.”

Update: They did it, the conservative trio came out and approved a completely new, unseen and undiscussed pairing for the Anchorage area. Read about it here: Alaska Redistricting Board shows its ugly, partisan colors with boost to Eagle River

After approving a reasonably fair map (given the board’s conservative majority and the undeniable growth of conservative areas of the state) last week, the Alaska Redistricting Board set to work on Monday to figure out the pairings in terms for Senate districts. Unlike the House districts, which under the law must be contiguous, compact, socioeconomically integrated and minimal deviation from the ideal population of a district, the board has pretty broad latitude when it comes to Senate pairings. During the 2010 round of redistricting, the courts ruled that the board should at least consider giving the city of Fairbanks its own Senate district but that’s largely the extent of the caselaw on the issue.

The board started out the morning by hearing public testimony, which was mostly folks who’ve been involved throughout the process. Testifiers discussed the connection between the Goldstream Valley, which is now in a rural Interior district, and the Ester/University/Chena Ridge areas of Fairbanks having a strong connection, the Kodiak/Cordova/Prince William Sound district having a strong connection with the South Kenai/Homer district through commercial fishing connections and, of course, plenty of talk about how Eagle River’s two Eagle River districts should be paired together and how Anchorage’s two Muldoon districts should be paired together. The partisan lean was represented in former Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich, who offered several pairings that ran contrary to the rest of the testimony and would have given an enormous benefit to Republicans.

Despite having a Republican-friendly plan teed up, the board opted down the line to approve pairings that would abide by the public testimony. South Kenai stayed paired with the Kodiak/Prince William Sound district and the west Fairbanks seat was paired with the rural Interior seat. The western coastal districts and the southeast districts stayed the status quo (as there wasn’t really any other feasible option on the table) and the Mat-Su maps seem to make good sense. Here’s each area’s settled pairings:

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The Fairbanks area map pairs the Chena Ridge/Ester/University area with the rural Interior district by way of a connection with west Fairbanks. It keeps the city of Fairbanks together as one Senate district (the result of the lawsuits around the last round of redistricting) and pairs the conservative North Pole and the newly conservative district covering Farmers Loop, Chena Hot Springs Road and Eielson together.
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In the Mat-Su area, there was a fair bit of debate about how the inclusion of Valdez into House District 25 should be reflected in the Senate pairings. Ultimately, the board followed the direction of the local governments and approved pairings that would keep a Wasilla city core, a Palmer-driven district and a rural Mat-Su district that ranges all the way up to the Denali Borough and all the way east to Valdez. It didn’t hurt that the two main third-party groups agreed on this pairing.
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It’s a status quo map for the Kenai Peninsula. Ruedrich had argued that 8 and 5 should be paired because 5 includes Seward now, which would have created a district very difficult for moderate Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens to win. Instead, they stick with this based on the real-world connections between the districts. Namely 5/6 both rely on the ferry and commercial fishing while 7/8 is more sport fishing and oil industry folks.

The major stumbling point came when board member Bethany Marcum presented her plan that was hellbent on pairing one of Eagle River’s districts with the military base district. Running contrary to just about everyone’s testimony, Marcum argued that Eagle River has a special connection with JBER that should override any other Anchorage district’s claim to the base. The fallout of the decision, of course, is that one of East Anchorage’s two Muldoon-centric districts gets paired with the other Eagle River district (in this case over an uninhabited mountain). Here’s her plan as best as I could figure out… she presented a flurry of not entirely clear options (this is important later):

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While most all testimony pushed for the East Anchorage area to be kept together in one Senate district and the Eagle River districts to be kept together in another, Marcum was bent on splitting both. The impact is Eagle River could suddenly be driving two Senate districts instead of just one.

Marcum’s plan was met with opposition from the get go. Board member Nicole Borromeo’s plan would keep Eagle River together and the East Anchorage areas together. She argued that there’s no good reason to split Eagle River up.

“I don't know why you'd ever consider splitting Eagle River unless you were trying to expand Eagle River's reach in the Senate, which I'm not suggesting that's something the board should ever entertain as a matter of fairness,” board member Nicole Borromeo said while explaining her plan that kept Eagle River districts paired together. “I don't believe Eagle River has a special claim to the base. I feel like there's several other neighborhoods in Anchorage that share that connection to the base.”

For the record, here’s Borromeo’s proposed pairings:

Board member Melanie Bahnke was also focused in on how Marcum’s plan would effectively minimize the minority voters in the East Anchorage area. Under Borromeo’s plan, East Anchorage voters would get a new senator of their own (having been previously represented by Democrat Bill Wielechowski and Republican Roger Holland). When she asked whether Marcum had given any consideration to the impact on race, Marcum said that it didn’t matter (it does).

“We know that we don't have constraints other than contiguity, but I think there are very strong socioeconomic ties between all areas of Muldoon with Eagle River. I certainly don't see people in that area by race,” she said. “I see them as people who are closely tied to the people of Eagle River.”

Borromeo noted that people in the Muldoon areas likely wouldn’t feel the same. While Eagle River residents may come into shop in the area, it’s not like there’s a lot of Muldoon residents who are going out to Eagle River to shop and recreate. It’s a one-way connection at best, she argued.

“What about the tie between Eagle River and Eagle River?” asked Bahnke, noting that they even have the same name.

“Eagle River has its own two separate House districts. This actually gives Eagle River the opportunity to have more representation,” Marcum replied in a line that will likely become much-discussed when the court challenges start rolling. “They're certainly not going to be disenfranchised by this process.

“So, you're saying that by splitting Eagle River, they'll have more representation?” Bahnke said incredulously.

Marcum attempted to backtrack a bit, noting for some reason that Eagle River didn’t even actually have enough population on its own for two whole House districts… and how that’s justification for putting them in the driver’s seat of two Senate districts.

Given the testimony, it’s difficult to actually justify much of her district but that didn’t stop chair John Binkley from trying to sneak the plan through following board member Budd Simpson’s statement that he didn’t think JBER/Eagle River pairing wasn’t totally out of line. There was little discussion on the merits of Marcum’s plan other than the mutterings of Binkley and Simpson that it didn’t look overtly illegal and was probably fine. Without even taking a vote, Binkley said it looked like Marcum won based on the “feeling” that there was support for it.

But what were they actually supporting? That’s the thing. Marcum’s presentation was so hurried and muddled that she hadn’t actually explained the specific pairings that she was actually pushing. Staff had to meet with her following that discussion to figure out the pairings.

Bahnke demanded they go into executive session to hear from legal counsel. She seemed to indicate that something counsel Matt Singer (one of Alaska’s heavy-hitter attorneys) said earlier in the day would raise issues with Marcum’s map, and during one at ease she reportedly confronted Marcum about how her map was “illegal.” Still, that didn’t stop Binkley from thinking that the whole exercise of examining the legality of the pairings was needed. He tried several times to avoid the executive session in order to push forward, but Simpson seemed to support the exercise.

So following the approval of the pairings (which is still not clear whether they actually approved the Anchorage pairings or not), the board went into what most said was supposed to be a “brief” executive session. Well, 90 minutes later the board emerged from executive session with Binkley conceding that there were “some challenging legal issues” to needed more consideration. The board broke for the night and is set to start today’s hearing with another 90-minute executive session on the plan. They’re set to return to public action at 10:30 a.m. this morning.

Takeaway: That 90 minutes with Matt Singer must have raised some significant legal questions. The fact that they didn’t come right back out and push through the plan that they seemed content to approve on a feeling means that there’s something wrong with the plan… at least that’s the hope from the observers. We’ll find out shortly.

Binkley’s attempts to rush through the plan without initially addressing the concerns about racial gerrymandering raised by Bahnke and Borromeo, let alone accurately identify what they were supporting or why they were supporting it, is a shameful way to bring an end to the process. Not only does it skirt the public process but it does so in a way that is nakedly partisan, giving everyone reason to believe the election districts that will determine the next 10 decades of legislative politics in Alaska isn’t fair or representative of the voters who live there.

In the mean time, here’s a good look at what’s at stake politically with the Senate pairings.

Another heavy-hitting attorney in Scott Kendall also weighed in on the matter. He said that while the partisan slant of everything is concerning, the issue to keep focus on is the Voting Rights Act and its protection for minority voters. He said this is a clear effort to steal representation from that area (an area, it should be noted, that just kicked out Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt).

Reading list

Christy NaMee Eriksen, the founder and owner of Juneau’s Kindred Post, had an excellent thread reflecting on the tragedy at the Astroworld festival where eight people died and what it says about our responses to a tragedy unfolding right around us, which would specifically be the covid-19 pandemic. You can find the whole thread in a more easily readable fashion here. Here’s a few of the selects: