Welcome to The Midnight Sun’s first-ever ranking of Alaska legislators!
Over the last month, we’ve looked for input from political insiders and readers to rate Alaska’s sitting legislators for no reason other than we thought it was pretty interesting and provide your humble editor another opportunity to mess around with a spreadsheet and Photoshop (No Friday in the Sun today, sorry). Thank you to everyone who took the time (about 15 minutes on average, according to SurveyMonkey) to participate. Here’s highlights and lowlights of the 90 responses we received during that time.
This is what should become the first of a regular series for us. If you have any suggestions, comments or hate mail, hit us up in the comments below or find us on Twitter. (This is all the number crunching we could get in today, but we’ll also have at least one follow-up on the rankings in the coming days).
Notes about the survey and ratings
We received a total of 90 responses to a survey that was sent to select political insiders and to the public through an invitation at the bottom of a recent edition of Friday in the Sun. We asked respondents to rate the ethics, intelligence and effectiveness of legislators they were familiar with on a 1 to 5 scale, encouraging respondents to skip over legislators they didn’t recognize. The survey only made reference to whether or not the legislator was a senator or a representative. We omitted a legislator’s district and party affiliation to dissuade people from getting overly partisan.
We weighted the overall responses of each group evenly, which gives the insiders (who made up about a quarter of total responses) more weight in the results. Generally speaking, both the insiders and the public agreed on rankings. We’ll highlight the biggest differences in a section below. We also asked for written input on each candidate and will include that sparingly.
In general, Democrats seemed to score better than Republicans across the board. There were just four Republicans in the top 12. Since the poll was anonymous, we can’t track whether or not political affiliation had an effect on this survey, so keep that in mind. The overall rankings for Democrats was 3.2 compared to 2.81 for Republicans. Senators, regardless of party, did better with an average score of 3.09 compared to an average score of 2.92 for representatives.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon
Overall rating: 3.88
Rep. Bryce Edgmon’s term as House Speaker made him the first-ever Alaska Native legislator to hold the top job in the Legislature’s unruly House. His slim majority coalition was built on a solid foundation of wanting to find a solution to the fiscal crisis, but just about every other piece of the coalition was shaky whether it was the bitter infighting among the ranks, the two controversy-marked resignations or the steep learning curve of dealing with the Senate. Here’s what people had to say:
- “Some of the major leadership blunders aside, he’s still a solid voice for his District. You don’t have to be a good speaker to be a good representative”
- “The Speaker had a thankless job of dealing with a caucus in disarray and members who didn’t (and still don’t) respect the power of the chair.”
- “Speaker Edgmon handled the various resignations in his caucus this year very well and I will always respect him for that.”
Rep. Ivy Spohnholz
Overall rating: 3.87
Rep. Ivy Spohnholz similarly impressed respondents across the board, ranking second overall with both insiders and the public. She scored the top in the combined ranking for intelligence, which is easy to see why if you’ve ever talked with the Anchorage representative. There wasn’t a lot of news out of the House Health and Social Services Committee, which she chaired this year, but anytime we tuned in, it was always a refreshingly thoughtful and informed discussion. Across the board with the many responses we received about Spohnholz, people were glowing about her potential. Here’s what people had to say:
- She could be governor of Washington or Oregon today. Alaska within 12 years. The best young legislator with the most potential.
- I think she’s too idealistic to be effective.
- Ivy is great, but she needs five other Ivys to make a difference.
Sen. Berta Gardner
Overall rating: 3.67
As the Senate Minority Leader, Sen. Berta Gardner made her final year in the Alaska Legislature a memorable one. Though she didn’t command enough membership to hold up significant roadblocks to the Republican-led majority, her caucus still found plenty of ways to be effective, get headlines and drive the conversation. Here’s what people had to say:
- “Sen. Gardner is both smart and ethical but directing a caucus as disjointed as the Senate Democrats is a tough job. They will miss her leadership.”
- “A wonderful person! No accomplishments of note.”
- “It’s tough leading a super minority caucus. Even harder when folks like Pete Kelly can’t be trusted to keep their word.”
Rep. Les Gara
Overall rating: 3.64
Rep. Les Gara wrapped up his final term in the Alaska Legislature with the passage of a landmark piece of legislation overhauling the state’s foster care system, an issue that’s long been important to the Anchorage legislator. Gara’s time in the Legislature has mostly been spent as a member of the minority, bouncing from a contrarian thorn in the side of the majority to one of the more effective bipartisan legislators. It was interesting to see his transition to the majority. Here’s what people had to say:
- His personal style annoyed some but we knew his heart was in right place and he had done his homework. Foster Care bill is his legacy accomplishment.
- Can be terrifically annoying in committees but helps keep the crazies in check with intelligent questions.
- Has been a tireless advocate for issues he believes in. Respect that. Glad he’s taking a break.
Sen. Tom Begich
Overall rating: 3.55
Tom Begich had about as impressive as a debut you can have when you’re relegated to a super minority. He made his biggest splash during floor debates and special orders by sticking to well-reasoned arguments based on hard facts and avoiding the hyperbole of some of his counterparts. Here’s what people had to say:
- Still a newbie, but he definitely knows the process, the issues and the district. hard to say how effective he is when he’s only been in minority in his first 2 years.
- While historically proficient and smarter than average, Sen. Begich continues to marginalize himself amongst the other 19 Senate members.
- Tom knows all there is to know about every subject. Just ask him, he’ll tell you.
Rep. Jason Grenn
Overall rating: 3.54
Rep. Jason Grenn understood the political game just about as well as anyone. He cashed in his independent win for a seat on the powerful House Finance Committee, a nice prize for a freshman legislator. As an independent, he cast plenty of votes with the Republican House Minority and was integral to the legislation that settled the state’s oil tax debt. He’s likely to have a place in whatever majority holds the House in January. Here’s what people had to say:
- We need more like him. Fantastic staff and he appreciates them.
- He really likes to milk the “being an independent is a delicate balance so I can’t always vote with the caucus” thing, which is annoying and costly to some member’s bills. Then again, though, that’s how the caucus was set up.
Great first term.
Sen. Anna MacKinnon
Overall rating: 3.53
She might not be the most popular legislator, but Sen. Anna MacKinnon is certainly one of the most well-regarded people in the building (which is especially notable considering the fact that she was the highest rated Republican on a list that put Les Gara near the top). MacKinnon is on her way out, leaving her seat open in this fall’s election (to two representatives who scored in the bottom third of this ranking), but will leave behind an accomplished session as a co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. A lot of flack fell into her lap, but she should be credited with cleaning up more than one mess created by her colleagues this session. MacKinnon ranked second in the combined rankings for effectiveness, only behind fellow Senate Finance Committee co-chair Lyman Hoffman. Here’s what people had to say:
- “Sen. MacKinnon hires excellent staff and as a result is heads and shoulders above many others in effectiveness.”
- “I can’t even begin to explain the amount of admiration I have for how well ran Sen. Mackinnon’s finance meetings are. She gets it done. She knows what she’s doing.”
- “Smart enough. Hard worker. Painfully petty and partisan. Willful ignorance was one of her trademarks.”
Sen. Lyman Hoffman
Overall rating: 3.53
Lyman Hoffman continued to caucus with Republicans this session, translating his membership as the only Democrat in the caucus into the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He’s widely respected as a talented hand when it comes to the budget (which probably also has something to do with his low score on ethics), and has always stood up for his community. Expect Hoffman to always hold a position of power, regardless of what party holds the gavel. Here’s what people had to say:
- The wily Bethel-first legislator always seems to land on his feet.
- In the mold of Frank Ferguson and Al Adams, Lyman has crafted the deals to protect and promote the needs of rural Alaskans. A true master of legislative budget politics.
- Definitely rings true for “puppet master” nickname in the building and is highly effective at making deals, but you have to question his real motivation and intent. Yet, the guy does what is best for the district by being in the majority.
Rep. Matt Claman
Overall rating: 3.5
Rep. Matt Claman was regularly in the news as the chair of the unruly House Judiciary Committee, which saw some of the biggest bills of the session. Still, he held things together as best as you could expect with Reps. Lora Reinbold, David Eastman and Gabrielle LeDoux all going in their… unique directions. While he was holding things together in the committee, he also seemed to find time and energy to help craft a moderate criminal justice reform bill during the session with the help of Republican Rep. Chuck Kopp. Here’s what people had to say:
- Rep. Claman plays the game quite well.
- Matt as House Judiciary chair has been amazing and impressive to watch.
- Dark socks, dark sandals. ‘Nuff said.
Sen. John Coghill
Overall rating: 3.44
As the architect of Senate Bill 91 and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, North Pole Sen. John Coghill has held things together far better than anyone could have expected. He put up a stiff parliamentary battle against rebellious senators during the session and while he lost those battles, he got the last laugh. He’s always been described as a guy who would never stab someone in the back–he’d do it to your face, while politely explaining why it’s necessary. Here’s what people had to say:
- I actually like him on a personal basis, but I hate most of his politics.
- Severely and sincerely conservative. Very honest with solid Alaska values. Willing to work across the aisle.
- Nicest conservative you’ll ever meet. Stuck in last century on certain views, but most Republicans are.
Sen. Bert Stedman
Overall rating: 3.44
It’s been a long time since Bert Stedman held the reigns of power in Juneau, but he’s shown flashes of his top-of-the-class smarts when it comes to the state’s financial situation. It’s always worth listening when he weighs in, but outside that it’s been unclear just what Stedman is after (other than the elimination of sea otters). Here’s what people had to say:
- A shadow of his former finance co-chair self. It’s brutal to see members of the majority still punishing him for his role in the bipartisan majority – even promoting democrat Hoffman over the southeast Republican.
- Well informed on oil tax theory and practice, but his policy and thought process are eccentric and move at a glacial pace. Created pressure and turbulence for the six years of the Bipartisan working group.
- Forever stained by taking a defined benefit pension plan from over 20,000 Alaskans
Rep. Chuck Kopp
Overall rating: 3.44
Rep. Chuck Kopp had an excellent debut in the House because he put aside the partisan fight so many of his colleagues seemed keen on fighting and worked across the aisle with Rep. Matt Claman on the crime bill. One of his most quietly impressive moments was his approach to the gun violence protective order bill, House Bill 75, in the House Judiciary Committee. While his Republican colleagues were parroting NRA talking points, the former police chief brought a reasonable–while still conservative–approach to the bill. It didn’t end up mattering when the NRA still got its way. Here’s what people had to say:
- Solid and willing to work across the aisle. Brings some humanity to his caucus and law enforcement insights to the legislature.
- First word that comes to mind when thinking of Rep. Kopp: Wholesome.
- Rep. Kopp is easily one of the most ethical legislators.
Rep. David Eastman
Overall rating: 1.5
Could it be anyone else? Rep. David Eastman has successfully alienated just about every legislator in the House with a dizzying array of insensitive-to-outright-racist comments and a slew of no votes that earned him the moniker of “N-Eastman” this year. One political insider once told us that if Eastman was found shot on the House floor, you’d have 39 other people saying they didn’t see anything. Disliked even by other Republicans, Eastman at the very least seems to have won over the Republicans of his House district. He’s been censured and he’s been kicked off the ethics committee for leaking a confidential report.
You can’t even point his poor ratings on partisanship as out of the 77 answers we got on his effectiveness, all but eight respondents ranked him as “bottom-of-the-barrel.” More than 55 percent of respondents rated him a 1 on intelligence and 70 percent ranked him a 1 on ethics. He ranked last in every single category regardless of whether it was insiders, the public or the combined ranking. Here’s what people had to say:
- So much has already been said about Rep. Eastman. One thing in his favor: he makes the House Majority Coalition look good.
- Rep. Eastman is the worst kind – he’s not crazy, probably smarter than most give him credit for. No, he’s Alaska’s Ted Cruz.
- A toxic presence.
Sen. David Wilson
Overall rating: 1.75
Sen. David Wilson’s first term in office included slapping a reporter, causing a scene in the hallway and then inappropriately retaliating against an employee of the House. He’s somehow managed to escape any consequence under the Senate Majority other than having to pen a disingenuous “letter of responsibility” that seemed to cast blame on the employee for his actions. Of more than 80 ratings, only a single respondent gave him a single 5 rating (in ethics no less). Here’s what people had to say:
- Why didn’t the Senate force him to resign for slapping a reporter and harassing a staffer?
- Sen. Wilson is growing into the position – he is better now than he was on day 1, but then again he really could only move up in that regard.
- I weep for the children when I think of this guy.
Rep. Justin Parish
Overall rating: 1.96
The day Justin Parish announced he wouldn’t be running for re-election was also the day harassment complaints against the freshman legislator became public. Here’s what people had to say:
- Not suited for legislative service. He realized it.
- Extremely disappointing. Curious, but asks way too many irrelevant questions in committee. Likes to hear himself talk.
- There is little more to say than he defines the bottom of the barrel.
Rep. Lora Reinbold
Overall rating: 2.12
After a crash-and-burn first session, Rep. Lora Reinbold’s second term seemed to go a little better. At the very least, Reinbold seemed to have a sense of humor and self-deprecation that at least makes her an entertaining member of the House. Reinbold’s politics put her on the far right and at times she seems to be more interested in playing politics than legislating (her antics in the House Judiciary Committee has been cause for many heavy sighs). Here’s what people had to say:
- Effectiveness based on being a pain in the butt. She is personally a very kind person though.
- It was great to see her take down Eastman on his opposition to the smoking bill. Even though she’s nutty, she seems more authentic and rooted in her beliefs than most.
- Another toxic polarizing presence who will divide Senate republicans and make a new bipartisan coalition possible.
Rep. George Rauscher
Overall rating: 2.27
George Rauscher has not had a particularly notable time in the Legislature and would have likely secured a spot on the “Who?” list if not for his BDSM-FREE ZONE sticker. He paid the price for that when he was looked over for an appointment to the Senate. Here’s what people had to say:
- George is one of the sweetest, decent people. Not terribly bright, however.
- Thinks he’s smarter than he is – thinks he’s more clever than he is – doesn’t think often.
- That sign was really stupid (not to mention offensive).
This category is ranked based on how many people skipped them over.
Rep. Gary Knopp
Overall rating: 3.1
Times skipped: 26
Here’s what people had to say:
- Not sure who he is
- Mr. Dull – almost outstanding in his ability to bore.
Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky
Overall rating: 3.11
Times skipped: 25
Chalk this one up to her late-in-the-session appointment. Other than ruffling feathers over her staffing decisions, Zulkosky made an otherwise impressive debut in Juneau. Here’s what people had to say:
- Tough to say. She’s SO new…
- Smart as hell. Doesn’t mind swimming up stream. Hope she doesn’t get caught in the trap of selling out values for capital project funds.
- Rep. Zulkosky strikes me as being not only very bright but very enthusiastic, with a lot of energy. It can’t have been easy to come in halfway through a session, and I’m excited to see what she can do in the future.
Rep. John Lincoln
Overall rating: 3.22
Times skipped: 25
John Lincoln was also pretty unfamiliar to respondents after his early session appointment. Here’s what people had to say:
- Like Zulkosky, too new to assess. Great staff, though.
- I think Rep. Lincoln will make a great legislator the longer he serves.
- Not sure who he is.
Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard
Overall rating: 2.7
Times skipped: 23
Her seating on the House floor meant she was rarely on Gavel cameras. Here’s what people had to say:
- Not sure who she is
- I haven’t heard or seen enough of Colleen to know how to answer
- Was she even in Juneau?
Rep. Dave Talerico
Overall rating: 2.88
Times skipped: 23
Dave Talerico is the only multi-term legislator on this part of the list. He’s had a quietly effective time in office, but hasn’t made much of a splash. Here’s what people had to say
- One of the nicest legislators and could be a rising star – needs better staff. Also Peggy is supreme value added to the akleg family #kniton
- I would grade his term as a solid – meh.