Welcome to the latest belated edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to make some sense of the political news and rumors of the week.
After a week of furiously refreshing election results, covid case counts and PlayStation 5 preorder pages, it feels like we’re a bit closer to a clear picture of how things are shaping up in Alaska: There’s some good, a lot of bad, some hope and quite a bit of disappointment.
Let’s get to it.
We’re looking for leadership, not a silver bullet
When president-elect Joe Biden announced his covid-19 task force over the past weekend, a friend in Alaska’s health care system told me that she cried. Not because it even comes close to putting a pandemic end-date on the calendar (it doesn’t) but because it was finally a sign of some much-needed leadership after many emotionally and physically exhausting months.
The doubt and conspiracy that have flowed from the nation’s highest office—that’s varied from actively making the situation worse to surrender—have been so deeply exhausting for people working in the health care industry. They’ve worked and watched with increasing alarm as the state teeters at the edge of tremendous human tragedy as people taking their cues from a lame-duck narcissist insist that it’s still overblown and they’re gonna attend that birthday party dinner.
All these claims that it’s not that big of a deal have been, at best, blind to the reality that the pandemic has, so far, been unequal in the damage its sown in Alaska. While it may not have reached into your circles and taken away friends and loved ones, that’s certainly not the case for Alaska Native communities or multi-generational Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander households, which both account for an outsized number of positive cases and deaths.
The fact that the virus hadn’t reached in and ruined lives close to the deniers is unfortunately not taken as a sign that perhaps the collective effort of others have helped limit the reach of the tragedy but instead as a sign that it’s overblown, that it’s time to get back to normal.
The luster on the lie is now wearing off.
On Thursday, 87-year-old Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young announced he’s tested positive for covid-19. Anchorage Republican Sen. Josh Revak, who said “Life is short” when asked about attending that birthday party with Young, has also announced he’s tested positive. Young’s office has gone radio silent on the Dean of the House’s condition and there’s a lot of rumors swirling, in no small part thanks to challenger Alyse Galvin’s concession statement that detailed her inability to get ahold of Young.
“Unfortunately, his staff was not able to get him on the phone, and I left him a voicemail,” she said. “I hope he gets well soon.” (Though, to be fair, there’s so much bad blood in that race, we wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Young just said, “Nah.”)
Today’s case count is another record-breaker at 745 new cases with an additional death. Anchorage is asking everyone get tested, even if they don’t have symptoms. In an ominous sign, Providence acquired a refrigerated storage container for a mobile morgue and Anchorage currently has a total of 12 available intensive care unit beds.
And all those statistics—which may not even be entirely accurate thanks to the state’s limited data-entry capacity and other glitches—are lagging indicators of what’s really happening.
While it feels like we may be teetering on the edge of tragedy, we may very well be over that edge.
Biden’s election may be a hopeful sign on the national level, the closest thing to stepped up action from Alaska’s executive was an emergency alert with a link to a 13-hour-old YouTube video where the governor made a dispassionate plea for Alaskans to maybe consider wearing a mask.
What’s particularly telling about the whole situation, I think, is the following statement from when Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced his legally tenuous extension of the disaster declaration: “It’s not going to be the declaration of emergency that’s going to put an end to this virus.”
Did anyone think so?
It’s not the first time we’ve seen calls for increased efforts to curb the virus be met with this kind of well-actually-ism. It shows a deep, seemingly intentional misunderstanding of what people are even asking for, a retreat into the simplistic us-versus-them thinking colors Dunleavy’s worldview.
No, no one who’s been paying attention thinks that a disaster declaration, masks, social distancing, limited capacities or even lockdowns will “put an end to this virus.” Even a vaccine won’t likely put an end to the virus. No, they’re intended to limit and slow the spread of the virus.
What we need right now what we’re looking for is an ounce of leadership on this, something the governor has seemingly been incapable of mustering since the days of easy decisions have passed. His refusal to implement a mask mandate is seen as a wink and a nod to deniers to keep going on as business as usual.
We’re not looking for a silver bullet, we need some leadership.
The layout of the Alaska Legislature is most definitely up in the air.
The Alaska Landmine’s Jeff Landfield spent Friday staked out outside the
Anchorage Legislative Information Office Denali Tower Building where the 13 Republican senators and senators-elect tried to hash out a Senate majority. For the record, 11 met in there in person. The still-awaiting-his-results-at-the-time Revak met on the phone, as did Sen. Lora Reinbold, who’s reportedly out of state.
They left without any agreement on the direction of a Republican majority—likely split somewhere between the camps of “Cut the PFD so we don’t need taxes” and “PFD and also no taxes.”
Over in the House, who’ll get to even get to have the fight over the gavel is still up in the air.
Democrats have clinched the defeat of one Republican in Calvin Schrage’s race against Rep. Mel Gillis and things look potentially promising for a hold in House District 40 and a second flip in House District 27 with fewer than 1,000 ballots left to be counted in each contest.
If Republicans win out in the contested races where they still lead—House Districts 15, 27 and 28—they would be right where they were at after the 2018 elections with a 21-member majority that includes not just one Rep. David Eastman but several additional Eastmen, fewer moderates and few people with experience in the majority.
By our count, they’d only have four with any experience in the majority—Reps. Pruitt, Thompson, Tilton and LeBon (whose experience is exclusively in the bipartisan coalition)—and a binding caucus has already been pulled off the table. All politics and policy concerns (of which we would have many) aside, the prospect of this is exciting from an entertainment perspective.
A Pruitt loss (which looks more likely than not at this point), Republican holds in House Districts 15 and 28 (which looks more likely than not at this point) would make the House District 40 race critical.
Democrat Elizabeth Ferguson would deliver the remnants of the bipartisan coalition a 20th member while a win by conservative-leaning Josiah Patkotak would put him in the driver’s seat for deciding the House majority (as long as the moderate Republicans don’t get cold feet at the prospect of relying on the Eastmen). While he’s not been particularly keen on working with Democrats, it’s not really Republicans but the oil industry that has helped him to where he’s at.
As we wrote earlier this week, he may find it politically difficult to sign on with a Republican group whose core members’ approach to the state’s finances has become increasingly at odds with rural Alaska, a direction that is only reinforced by the additional of several Eastman-like legislators in other areas of the state who’ve eyed rural Alaska’s Power Cost Equalization fund and the North Slope’s lucrative property taxes as a quick, temporary fix to the state’s budget woes.
The only thing we think is safe for predicting with a potential Rep. Patkotak is that we could pencil him in as co-chair of the House Resources Committee in whatever group takes the House.
Meanwhile, we’ll still be waiting on those ballots to be counted.
Ballot Measure 2
What we do know from the election results is that Ballot Measure 2, a landmark elections reform measure that would implement open primaries, ranked-choice voting and disclosure measures on independent spending on candidate races, is currently ahead by a margin of about 1,500 votes.
It’s not only interesting for what it’ll mean for upcoming elections but for legislators looking ahead what could be potentially more moderate-friendly primaries.
With the top four vote-getters advancing to the general election, “moderate” folks like Sens. John Coghill and Cathy Giessel and several Republican representatives would likely be heading to reelection instead of figuring out what kind of consulting they’ll be doing come January.
So food for thought.
(Also, judging by how the results currently stand there are a handful of legislative races that would be headed to an instant-runoff.)
As we await the results of the election, we’ve already heard quite a bit of grumbling among Democrats about how some campaigns were and weren’t run.
There’s certainly been some angst on the legislative level, which is likely a story for another day, but the relatively weak performance of Al Gross–who lagged behind even Joe Biden–has been largely a unifying force and the start of a discussion about how progressives could do better in Alaska.
There’s a lot of issues here and time to unpack them later, but the key takeaway seems to come down to the inauthenticity of campaigns run by folks from Outside. The romanticizing of Alaska–particularly this over-masculinization of it–is particularly tiresome and surface-level.
Not having experienced and knowledgeable Alaskans running a campaign shows in many ways, particularly when it came to the Gross campaign’s anemic outreach to Alaska Native organizations (something we heard a bit about during the course of the campaign).
It seems like the Gross failure is particularly galvanizing and we’re interested to see how things start to develop. It’ll take not just more Alaskans–but more Alaskans from every walk of life–at the wheel to change course for next time around.