Welcome to the latest edition of Friday Saturday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to make sense of the week in news from the Alaska political world.
For once, I attempted to write a fair bit of this ahead of Friday and, well, that proved to be a little premature once everything changed on Thursday night with the news of the president’s coronavirus diagnosis and all the unknowns, punctuated by his Friday trip to the Walter Reed Medical Center, have come into focus. I’ve jettisoned most of that, saving some for a different post.
While the nation gasps
It’s a weird, tense moment for everyone in this country—just a month before the general election—and I guess all I can say about the president is that perhaps this will instill some iota of understanding of the pain and turmoil he’s caused for the families of the 208,000 Americans who’ve succumbed to the disease, the millions who’ve contracted it and economic turmoil we’ll be cleaning up for years. At the very least, we can hope he’ll healthily be watching the cleanup from the sidelines.
We face a litany of unknowns as the president receives treatment—shrouded behind a press office and doctor that have been obscuring the truth for four years—and new cases continue to emerge from people in his orbit.
To see the last week Donald Trump’s activities are coming into fine focus as media outlets compile the ticktock of travel, fundraisers, rallies, the debate and meetings with senators. What’s so remarkable is how remarkably normal—and therefore incredibly out-of-place during a highly contagious pandemic—all the events have looked.
There’s hugging, kissing, hand shaking and hardly a mask in sight as supporters and sycophants gathered elbow-to-elbow at rallies and in the Rose Garden.
I think for many of us, our stomachs churn at the casual display of what so many of us have foregone over the course of a pandemic that’s nearing the seven-month mark with nothing but another rise in cases in sight. For those who in the back who need to hear it again: No one likes wearing masks, no one likes social distancing, no one likes foregoing major life events. We do not want to get sick and, importantly, we don’t want others in our community to get sick.
We’ve watched with frustration as Trump has acted normal, while protestors rushed to obstinate diners, while the maskless asshole flippantly whistles while shopping at Fred Meyer and while Republican legislators hold one large maskless fundraiser after another.
“We’ll never be over this,” says your partner, perhaps the only person who we’ve really interacted with in months. You sigh and later wonder when it’ll finally be safe enough to travel to the Lower 48 and whether your childhood dog—now 16 or 17—will make it that long, and feel dumb and selfish for feeling that way when so many more have it so much worse.
Meanwhile, others pack into maskless events.
What we’ve see from Trump and his supporters is not a portrait of macho strength—popped by his diagnosis and rush to the hospital on Friday in case he become unable to walk over the weekend—but of pure selfish disregard for their own health and the health of others.
“Wearing a mask was never a guarantee of protection against the coronavirus. It was not an assurance of invincibility. But when faced with such a stealthy invader, scientific experts said it was one of the best weapons in a sparse arsenal. The mask provided the wearer with some degree of defense, but mostly it served as protection to others — a kindness extended to one’s neighbor and a civic duty among strangers. The president, since this pandemic began, has been loath to wear a mask in deference to those around him. He said it was not necessary because he and those in his inner circle were regularly tested. He said it was not a good look for the leader of the free world. He said he just didn’t want to wear a mask. At worst, that was defined as evidence of his selfish disregard,” she said, later adding, “Trump tried to make masks a test of machismo. He turned them into a political wedge issue and a referendum on freedom. He reveled in his boisterous, maskless rallies. Masks became something to fight about that left other countries baffled by the pettiness of it all. And even though the risks were real and substantial — life and death in many cases — somehow, for so many, the peril seemed minor.”
Remember that the deadline to register to vote in Alaska is this Sunday. You can register online, by mail or at regional offices that will be open this weekend.
The pictures from crowded, maskless Republican fundraisers have been piling up over the last few weeks, generating that same frustrated We’ll-never-be-over-this sigh, but the latest one posted by Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche was the first taken after the president’s diagnosis.
It’s a veritable “Where’s Waldo” of Alaska Republicans with endangered “Quiet” Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, Department of Administration/Anchorage mom with a petition Kelly Tshibaka, election liar/Kenai Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, child admonisher/Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance, former representative-turned-state-employee Dan Saddler and plenty more.
Alaska’s cases are spiking again with Anchorage hitting daily case averages of about 70 cases per day with several local outbreaks being reported across the state. Rep. Lance Pruitt ducked out of Alaska Public Media’s debate to attend one on Tuesday night where, according to the Republican mouthpiece, was held “with a few people wearing masks, but everyone wearing smiles.”
Thanks to the booming rate of infections, the Anchorage School District announced Thursday afternoon that it pulled the plug on returning kids to in-person instruction, a point I’m sure folks like Tshibaka will soon work to manipulate for their own political purposes.
There’s no toughness on display in these images, just a cultish dedication to Trump’s Republican party, their own power and their own pocketbooks. They don’t care about the health of the community. If they did, they’d at least be wearing masks.
‘That’s not how this works’
Speaking of that debate Pruitt ditched out on, Alaska Public Media conducted a series of distanced debates this week between legislative candidates in an event that provided the most clear and accessible look at the people running for political office in Alaska. If you’re interested in any of the races, I encourage you to check them out. Reporters Andrew Kitchenman, Nat Herz and the whole Alaska Public Media crew made the debates interesting, entertaining and watchable.
For sake of having a day, I’m just going to run down some of my takeaways from the event, which mostly focuses on the second day (c’mon paying close attention right after that presidential debate is tough!):
- The Republican insurgents who defeated the incumbents with a hefty dose of PFD-fueled, party-purity animosity were stunningly unprepared and uneducated about Alaska’s financial picture (more on that below). Anchorage Republican candidates James Kaufman (who appeared from the front seat of his car), Roger Holland and David Nelson met any budget question with a Dunleavy-level of dodging. “Everything’s on the table,” they said when asked about education, the Alaska Marine Highway, the ferry system, health care, revenue and the PFD. “Donna who?” they feigned.
- Meanwhile, the Coghill-defeating Robb Myers seemed like the kind of guy who proudly put his copy of “Donna Arduin’s Guide to Paying for a Mega PFD by Robbing Rural Alaska” on the shelf. When asked about the budget, he echoed Arduin’s pitch of tapping into accounts like the Power Cost Equalization fund to cover government while continuing to butcher state services.
- I came out of that debate feeling more confident about opponent Marna Sanford’s chances in the admittedly challenging three-way race created by third-wheel Evan Eads initially looked. She’s clear, confident, charismatic and, importantly, pragmatic.
- Are we sure anyone’s seen Senate President Cathy Giessel/Rep. Jennifer Johnston/Sen. Natasha von Imhof in the same room with Democrat-backed independent candidate Suzanne LaFrance? She’d support a constitutional spending cap, opposes the oil tax measure and opposes recalling Dunleavy… It’s almost like being an independent makes a difference.
- I think a lot of people have been snoozing on House District 15 candidate Lyn Franks, especially after that debate performance. She did an excellent job at unashamedly laying out the progressive agenda while Nelson looked a bit ghoulish from political platform to delivery. I feel like many Alaska Democrats shy away from sounding too progressive to a point where they’d be a moderate Republican in any other state (see also, pretty much every elected Democrat).
- “……………………………………………………………………. Oh man, that’s tough………………… No,” was Nelson’s response to whether the Alaska Legislature should investigate the circumstances of Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, as it has the power to do.
- “Yes,” that was Franks’ answer.
Pebble Tapes, continued
Those Pebble Tapes aren’t going away anytime soon. Good.
It could be worse and it could definitely get worse
On Friday, the House Finance Committee (attended by maskless Reps. Kelly Merrick and Jennifer Johnston and the masked Rep. Andy Jospehson (Gee, I wonder why Democrats aren’t getting sick in the same way)) got a look at the state’s financial picture heading into next year. There’re a few key takeaways from the meeting:
- Alaska’s foreclosures and bankruptcies are currently below where they were in 2019 thanks to government intervention ranging from cash payments, grants and other measures. However, Dan Stickel, the state’s chief economist, said, “If there isn’t further federal stimulus it’s possible that these indicators could start looking really bad and Alaskans could be looking for the state for help.”
- The good news: The state’s forecast for revenue is looking pretty accurate. The bad news: The state’s forecast for revenue is looking pretty accurate. Revenue is sharply down, as expected, but not worse than expected due to various factors, including a rather robust stock market.
- Much to Rep. LeBon’s chagrin, the state still does not have a crystal ball for predicting what the supplemental budget—which trues up the budget for unexpected costs accrued during the year—will be, but it looks to be a mix of good and bad news: Some fee-based agencies are deep underwater while the state has ran up mild firefighting costs and the decline in in-school enrollment may bring education costs down (which brings its own policy problems).
- When you ask about the size of the deficit, there’s two different numbers. As the Legislative Finance Division put it, there’s the current law deficit and the current policy deficit. If we have a budget that goes by the laws on the books and pays out a PFD as well as school bond debt reimbursement and everything else, we have a $2.4 billion deficit. If we continue the status quo of refusing to fully fund the PFD and school bond debt reimbursement and everything else, we have a projected deficit of about $900 million (which includes a $1,000 PFD costing $680 million).
This next year will take some serious, hard decisions from Alaska’s elected officials. There will need to be cuts, need to be new revenue and need to be changes in law. Unfortunately, there’s several candidates who still need to wait until they get to Juneau really even begin to understand the problem (Holland) and those who have no apparent opinion on what should be done (Holland and Nelson).
If we weren’t constantly fighting over the basic facts of the problem, we could be using this time not just focusing on how to brace for the crash but how to begin building for the climb back out of this hole.
25 YEARS AGO Oct. 2, 1995
—ANCHORAGE— A longrange financial planning commission has recommended closing the state’s growing fiscal gap within four years by reducing spending, passing new taxes and tapping excess income from the Alaska Permanent Fund. If the whole plan is adopted, the state will have a sustainable longrange spending and revenue plan that replaces declining oil revenue earnings, Commission Chairman Brian Rogers said Sunday.
“The commission’s recommendations begin to use the Permanent Fund as an endowment, with fences all around,” said Judy Brady, vice chairman.
A preliminary report from the commission says the state is expected to spend $513 million more than it will take in in revenue in the current fiscal year. That gap is expected to grow to $1.13 billion by the year 2000.
-The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner’s Looking Back section from this week’s paper
It’s Fat Bear Week! Go vote.