Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to make sense of the news and catch up on what we can. We’re only human after all.
As always, you can get ahold of me with your tips, corrections and unsolicited proofreading at: [email protected].
Please, let this be the final word
It’s been a week since now-former Fox/ABC/CW/NewsNetNationalAlaska reporter Maria Athens turned Anchorage politics into a sleazy cesspool filled with revenge porn, anti-Semitic death threats, booze-infused cookies, assault and general human misery, and we’d be happy if we never have to think of any of it—particularly a certain hairy butt picture posted without the butt’s permission—ever again.
I think it all stopped being entertaining right around the time we heard the phrase “consensual, inappropriate messaging relationship” and the sheer amount of disappointment became too much.
There’s plenty of tick-tocks of the whole sordid tale, but for my money I think the job done by the Anchorage Daily News’ Michelle Theriault Boots and Kyle Hopkins—How a TV interview spiraled into a scandal that led to the resignation of Anchorage’s mayor—is the best. You can probably keep working this story forever, finding new and bizarre connections… like Athens’ sandwich of choice for making anti-Semitic death threats that include your station call signature: “a BLT without bacon but with mushrooms,” but this ought to be the final word on it all.
Anyways, Ethan Berkowitz’s resignation will be effective next week, when the current Assembly chair will take over as interim mayor until wither a special election is held or we get to the April regular election. The Anchorage Assembly will be meeting tonight at 5 p.m. as part of a reorganizational meeting so they can pick the interim mayor.
There’s been a lot of chatter about who’s the favorite to take the spot but at the rate we write this column, they might have already voted by the time we hit publish so we’ll spare y’all the guessing.
COVID-19 on the rise
I’ll keep this week’s rant about the coronavirus pandemic limited. Since hitting a high of 240 cases last Saturday, Alaska’s showing no signs of slowing—the perfect time to loosen travel restrictions another notch and invite K-2 kids back to the classroom—and today’s case count hit 220. And as if to put an underline on the state of the pandemic, three in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Anchorage office have tested positive for covid-19 a week after the governor was caught maskless at a Republican fundraiser.
We’ve heard talk that officials are expecting that number to soon be in the range of about 500 new cases a day and there’s a general feeling that the virus is far more prevalent than results might suggest. Alaska Public Media has a report saying the case rate is projected to double every 25 days.
It’s important to keep in mind that the only place on the road system where testing is widely available is Anchorage, where there’s several completely free drive-up testing locations. Fairbanks opened its first free drive-up testing location just this week… though it’s only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Understanding the virus and the necessary measures to help combat it rely on fast, effective and widely available testing. Alaska has its blind spots and that’s not beginning to factor in the politics of it all.
What’s going on in Fairbanks?
Former Rep. Tammie Wilson is on her way back to public following the results of last week’s local elections, where Wilson led a wave of conservative victories by securing herself a seat on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly. Wilson’s arrival gives conservatives a 4-member block, the largest on the nine-member assembly in nearly a decade.
This year’s election combined with last year’s end a long run of progressive victories in Fairbanks. We talked this week with a few insiders who’re more up-to-date on Fairbanks than we are and it seems that the shift can be attributed to several factors coming other at the right time for Wilson and company:
- The Interior’s team of progressive campaigners has largely moved on—either to elected office in the case of Rep. Grier Hopkins or consumed by the Anchorage borg—while conservatives are starting to get their act together.
- In particular, conservatives are starting to tap back into the churches that have largely been dormant politics-wise for the last decade. When I was a green reporter in Fairbanks, I remember a lot of hushed talk about the sway churches held over Alaska politics and how that had been put on the backburner for most of the 2010s. That seems to have come to an end.
- A big motivation for conservatives is an anti-LGBTQ agenda fueled in large part by the 2019 battle over an equal protection ordinance. While it seemed to have bipartisan support at first, conservatives saw opportunity in splitting the community over the issue and firing up their base. It’s continued to fuel the right this year, particularly when it comes to the school board.
- In addition to more organized conservatives and less organized progressives, the pandemic also helped tip the balance of the race a fair bit. While progressives skipped a coordinated campaign office this year, conservatives largely continued with business as usual.
What could become particularly interesting with the Fairbanks North Star Borough is the outcome of the Assemblywoman Marna Sanford’s bid for the Alaska Senate. If she wins, the assembly will be split 4-4 between a variety of progressives to a core of far-right Wilson-led conservatives.
Turning our attention to the election ahead… here’s a bunch of notes that we don’t really feel like being witty about:
- Several people have pestered me about this, so fine: But, hey, Rep. Sara Rasmussen sure did miss a lot of floor sessions and a lot of votes, just as independent challenger Stephen Trimble has pointed out in his campaign ads. She’s missed exactly half of regular floor sessions in 2020 (17 of 34). While she’s claimed her missed votes were for to celebrate her grandpa’s 100th birthday (in the early stages of the pandemic, no less) for the absences, she had already missed 18 floor sessions by the beginning of March 2020 and 53 votes. In all, she’s only second to Rep. Mark Neuman, who missed much of the session with major health issues, in missing sessions.
- House District 15 voters got a mailer in the last week from Republican candidate David Nelson explaining that he missed the July 22 deadline to get his candidate statement into the official election pamphlet because he was on active duty with the Alaska Army National Guard and “his campaign suspended all activities for seventy-seven days while David Nelson and his fellow Guard Members responded to the COVID-19 emergency.” The only problem is Nelson’s campaign has several Facebook posts form that period, including one on July 21.
- Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, is the first elected official to our knowledge that has stated a firm opposition to the proposed Donlin Gold mine. “Could I, as a Yup’ik woman whose family has subsisted in the region since time immemorial and continues to rely on this land’s renewable resources, take a position to support something that takes even the slimmest chance of putting our land and ways of life in jeopardy?” she says on her campaign site. “Along with many Tribes along the Kuskokwim watershed, my answer is plainly no.”
- We heard that the League of Women Voters debate for Fairbanks-area candidates is set to be pretty interesting. We’re particularly interested in the race for Senate District B between Marna Sanford, Robb Myers and Evan Eads. As one person told us “There’s three on the stage and just one senator.” That senator being Sanford, who’s standing head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to, well, just about everything.
- A sweeping APOC complaint has been filed against Republican Rep. Lance “Am I even trying anymore?” Pruitt that alleges he has tens of thousands of dollars in unreported income spanning several elections. We need to read through it more before writing anything else, but, woo, APOC!
- The New York Times has new polling out that paints a less rosy picture of the congressional races, proving—largely—that including the whole ballot in the polling is important. While other polls have showed an incredibly tight race between the incumbent Republicans and their Democrat-backed independent challengers, this showed a lot of support for third-party candidates. One big thing of note: “The G.O.P. challenge is centered in Anchorage, a once reliably Republican city where all three Republican candidates now trail. The president won Anchorage by five points four years ago, but Mr. Biden leads by nine in the survey, 47-38. The city represents a larger share of its state’s population than any other city except New York City.”
- With a bulk of the more competitive legislative races centered in Anchorage, that last point about the Anchorage politics is certainly good news for the slate of Democrats hoping to pry several seats away from Republicans.
The chatter seems to be that if Dunleavy and team do, in fact, secure Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, they’ll run something largely akin to Dunleavy’s Year One budget with deep cuts that conveniently heap most of the pain rural Alaska (a prospect, we imagine, that would make it very difficult to organize if things are close in either chamber).
While some politicians have tried to distance themselves from the Donna Arduin road show (who, by the way, ranked Dunleavy 49th on whatever “economic freedom” means), others have been more eager to adopt her fantasy-land solutions to Alaska’s financial woes.
That’s certainly the feeling on the other side of the aisle.
The Alaska Federation of Natives’ annual convention got underway digitally on Thursday, featuring House Speaker Bryce Edgmon as the keynote speaker and later Bush Caucus chair Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky in a preview of their concerns if the Arduin playbook of robbing rural Alaska comes to fruition.
“Depending who’s in leadership positions in Juneau next session, you might see a Legislature that takes a one-dimensional approach to balancing the books. They’re going to make major, major cuts and then they’ll look back afterwards and decide if that’s the right move or not,” Edgmon said, “but I’m hoping that we’ll have a Legislature that will take a reasoned approach to this and look at this with a multi-dimensional standpoint because we have the opportunity, I think, to make some good choices, some measured choices that give us a glidepath to right-sizing government.”
Zulkosky was even more pointed in her criticism of the politics at play, noting that the pandemic has laid bare the systemic inequalities in Alaska’s budget and policy. The politics of Arduin, she argues, would only make it worse.
“This pandemic has also highlighted the systemic inequities between urban and rural parts of the state. Whether regarding accessibility to state programs or equitable funding through the state budget. Not all communities in Alaska start at the same starting line,” she said. “As Alaska faces significant uncertainty to declining revenues and lack of political will to address it, we have seen unprecedented attacks to drain the Power Cost Equalization endowment fund, spend down our savings, cut rural public safety, community assistance, education and limit access to health care for short-term gains that put rural Alaska communities on the edge.”
“Fundamentally, a budget is a values document. As we create budgets, we must think about what our goals are and then pass a budget that puts us on a path to achieving those goals. Even if that means essential services might require more investment in one place than in another. When one in three Alaska communities does not have any sort of public safety, when students in Akiachuk do not have the same level of internet connectivity as do students in Bethel or Anchorage, when thousands of Alaska households are still using honey buckets, it is clear the state is not providing program or funding equity and there is more work to do.”
Add that to the governor and former-Attorney General and general creep Kevin Clarkson’s legal bills after today’s Superior Court ruling that found the governor’s politically motivated veto of the court system budget was, in fact, an unconstitutional infringement of the separation of powers doctrine and must be restored. In her ruling, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jennifer Henderson said, “there perhaps could be no more direct a threat against judicial independence.”
“The governor threatens judicial independence, as well as the faith of the public in the integrity of the judiciary, which is crucial to the rule of law,” she wrote. “The separation of powers doctrine simply cannot tolerate a construct in which the funding of the judiciary is based on the popularity of its opinions.”
That follows two other decisions that awarded plaintiffs in recent days: $156,882.50 in fees associated with Fletcher v. State of Alaska and another $182,822.09 for the Recall Dunleavy case.
Finish the ballot
And this year, it’s also more critical than ever that you finish the ballot—the religious right certainly is planning to in their ongoing mission to reshape Alaska’s Court System into the theocratic system they think it should be. This time around, they’ve set their sights on Alaska Supreme Court Justice Susan Carney.
While we’re still working on something a little more substantial about it, check out the latest post from Wichersham’s Conscience—Don’t Let the Theocrats Win—for a good rundown on the situation.
A final note
#akleg It’s almost Halloween and this is your chance to invade my guarded editorial domain with your best AKLEG costume ideas. I’ll draw a few of my favs and post them to the @Midnight_Sun_ak. Here’s the batch from last year.
Awww… Dunleavy lost his dragon buddy :( pic.twitter.com/MhjsmzoFTs
— Pat Race (@alaskarobotics) October 16, 2020