Welcome to a special/belated/early edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to make sense of the news form the Alaska political world.
Sorry for the lack of a column last week. My frustration with the state’s response to covid and the tough cancellation of my own Thanksgiving plans got the best of me with a grumpier-than-usual column that I just had to step away from.
Anyways! We’re going to take a much-needed break for the rest of the weekend and will get back to everything on Monday. Hope y’all can take a much-needed break and, please, don’t directly or indirectly kill your parents this Thanksgiving.
It’s gonna be a mess
Typically, the days after an election feature legislative majorities laying claim to a chamber and projecting confidence about the session ahead—“We’ll be done in 90 days!”—with the organizational agreements having all taken place long ago among members who were certain to win re-election.
There have been no such announcements this year.
The 13 Senate Republicans met for several hours last week but produced no agreement as Democrats circle, hoping to form a coalition in the event the group’s moderates are turned off by its far-right core.
Meanwhile, the House is split down the middle between party-line Republicans and everyone else with the announcement that Rep.-elect Josiah Patkotak would be teaming up with fellow rural legislators to, surprise, protect key rural Alaska interests from cuts. Like with the Senate, a coalition will require moderate Republicans to have second thoughts about relying on their far-right colleagues.
They already have some hope on that front with Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon’s pragmatic assessment offered to KTUU last week that a majority organization will be bipartisan.
“What I’ve learned, in my brief two years in the Legislature, is that you need a healthy number in your majority caucus,” LeBon told the outlet. “Twenty-one would not define a healthy number.”
So, put him down as a “maybe” on the whole coalition thing.
But this isn’t strictly about the exciting politics of legislative caucuses—something we honestly don’t expect to see any movement on until the release of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s initial budget proposal on Dec. 15, and even then we wouldn’t be surprised if we started session without organizations in the Legislature—it’s about the practical challenge of running a capitol in the middle of the pandemic.
The Legislative Council approved its Pandemic Code of Conduct Policy today, setting out expectations for how the Legislature will operate in the next session. It requires folks to quarantine ahead of travel to Juneau, get tested, quarantine in the event of a positive test, wear masks, distance and avoid all “non-essential trips out of the Capital City.”
They also approved a contract for screening and testing within the capitol.
Of course, this has to all be approved by the legislators in the next session. A lot of the folks voting to approve the measures today won’t be there in January and those that will be there aren’t guaranteed to be at the controls.
So it’s good news, but not likely to allay much of the anxiety we’re hearing from legislative staffers about the upcoming session and covid, particularly when there’s a contingent of the Legislature that is still firmly in the “Covid is an overblown hoax, probably created in a lab, to try to make us care about each other and we won’t be having any of it” camp.
What recourse, if any, is there for a staffer when Sen. Lora “Help! My civil rights are being infringed by masks and the lack of booze options on Alaska Airlines” Reinbold or Rep. Ben “Health screenings are like the Holocaust and while we’re talking about it Hitler wasn’t actually a White Supremacist” Carpenter are hanging out without a mask on?
If they complain, do they risk losing their jobs?
The council stopped short of telling staffers to stay home and instead put together a second team that’ll be tasked with figuring out the specific logistics of the start of session because regardless of what happens, they’ll need to all meet in person for the first day at the very least.
We’ve heard some talk about legislators bringing one staff member with them and today Legislative Council Chair Sen. Gary Stevens suggested they might consider limiting access to the bare minimum number of people necessary, but again this all rests on the leadership of next session.
And then there’s also the logistics of what happens in the event that there is an outbreak within the Legislature? Especially when whatever organization won’t have significant numbers to spare on pretty much any vote. Minority Republicans knew this in the House and that’s why they opposed efforts for a digital session this year.
Last year’s session felt like a race against time as everyone tried to get work wrapped and that was well before covid was running rampant in Alaska and before the anti-mask conspiracy nuts got rolling.
I’m sorry if I offended you
Also, who honestly makes a cake with the least-sincere apologies?
But, honestly, we’re all here for the Reinbold v. Alaska Airlines feud.
VERY GOOD NEWS… however
Todays’ announcement from the Army Corps of Engineers that they had denied the Pebble Mine permit is great news for opponents of the project, but as with everything related to this controversial project it’s not quite the last word.
Not only can the project reapply for a permit, it could feasibly bring a legal challenge over what is admittedly a pretty big shift from the glowing environmental impact statement to today’s denial.
It’d be a great time for Alaska U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to make good on their opposition to the project and, you know, do something about it. But, hey, the election is over.
What did we learn from the elections?
Anchorage is turning pretty blue, going to Biden this year after it went to Trump in 2016. Two House seats flipped from Republican to Democrat while two came close to doing the same. Somehow Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck—who was Republicans’ only real hope at an Anchorage-area flip—once again escaped defeat after running another anemic campaign against a Republican who outraised and outspent him.
Republicans are surprisingly good at voting straight-ticket. Statewide Republican candidates finished within about 2,100 votes of each other out 360,684 votes cast statewide, according to the latest uncertified results. To one person we talked to, it’s perhaps a sign that the whole independent-in-place-of-a-Democrat bid may not quite as viable as once thought. Their thinking is, essentially, that potentially losing out on low-information Democratic voters isn’t worth it when conservative voters are so monolithic.
(We’re not entirely convinced on this, but we wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the assertion that at the very least there are a lot more low-information voters than us nerdy political types would like to admit. Labels do, apparently, matter!)
Still, the independent-in-place-of-a-Democrat plan has finally produced a success in Rep.-elect Calvin Schrage, who’s the first independent to win office through the Alaska Democratic Party’s open primary system. But given that his independent status was wiped away by the Division of Elections’ secretive ballot redesign process, it likely didn’t have significant impact in the race.
The door-knocking game matters a lot. As we look for answers about who succeeded and who didn’t, it seems like a big factor in these races is just how much of a door-to-door campaign candidates kept up during the pandemic. Some suspended their door-knocking efforts altogether, giving up ground to their opponents, while others, like Schrage, kept it up. It’s hard to beat the impact that a face-to-face interaction—even if it’s done at a socially responsible distance and behind masks—makes in winning over voters, especially when the impact and reach of other outreach is relatively limited.
And of all these lessons, just how much of it will matter once the Alaska Redistricting Board reworks the state’s election maps and how much of it will matter with the implementation of Ballot Measure 2’s open primaries and ranked choice voting in the general elections?
In this year’s election, two legislative races stand to have been decided by ranked choice voting’s instant runoff system: The House District 23 bout between Tuck (47.8%) and Republican Kathy Henslee (43.09%) and the Housed District 28 race between Democratic candidate Suzanne LaFrance (46.08%) and Republican James Kaufman (49.81%).
With Alaska’s election results set to be certified
today eventually, we’re soon moving onto the next step of recounts and potential legal challenges. We expect to see a recount in House District 27, where Democrat Liz Snyder’s 16-vote win over Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt is well within the margin for the state to foot the bill.
A recount is unlikely to move the margin much, but the process opens the door for each party to litigate rejected ballots (of which there are 18) as well as ballots where the vote may not have been clear. The 2018 recount of the House District 1 race saw a grand total of three additional votes added to the tally, giving Republican Bart LeBon a one-vote margin over Democratic challenger Kathryn Dodge.
We’ve heard chatter about the sides lawyering up, which is to be expected with a high-stakes race like this. The results of the House District 1 race was eventually appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which denied the request.
Anchorage is heading back to a hunker down period starting next Tuesday and running through the end of the year, Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson announced today amid quickly escalating cases and quickly dwindling health care capacity.
The latest order seems to reflect the improved understanding of the spread of the virus with the strictest measures hitting bars and restaurants, where eating, drinking, laughing and talking without a mask significantly increase the chance of spreading the virus.
The order closes all dine-in/drink-in services at restaurants and bars, closes indoor entertainment and sports, and limits capacity to 25% for gyms, salons and retail businesses. It also requires employers to have everyone who can work from home do so for the duration of the order.
The measure also seeks to limit indoor gatherings to six people and outdoor gatherings to 10. It exempts daycares and schools and offers a 20-person limit for wedding and funeral services. Worship and political expression are under a 50% capacity limit but are encouraged to keep it smaller.
As for penalties, here’s what the order says: “In addition to fines and other penalties currently provided by law, violations of this emergency order may result in mandatory suspension of activities or closure of individual businesses, non-profits, and other entities for a period of up to two weeks.”
Of course, this all comes at a time thanks to Congressional inaction that relief dollars are about to expire with no additional relief in sight.
(Also, yes, the governor continues to be largely missing in providing any kind of meaningful statewide leadership as covid tears through pretty much every area of the state that people warned it would be a problem. It’s a complete and utter failure that we cannot really muster the anger to write about anymore.)
It’s beginning to look a lot like an undisclosed campaign expense
Thanks to the tipster who told us to look up Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka on Facebook’s Ad Library where lo-and-behold a pair of ads where she boosts Republican candidate Keith Kurber, writing “PRO- Keith Kurber for House! Juneau needs to get hard things done and Fairbanks needs a leader who’s done hard things” as well as praising him for his military service, career as a police officer and, because of course, his work as a pastor.
Another politico says that she might be able to skirt the rules because the post doesn’t explicitly say to vote for Kurber (it also doesn’t hurt that the state’s campaign regulators are part of the Department of Administration and probably another ripe target for her to bid out on a sole-source contract), but then again neither did Jeff Landfield when he got dinged by APOC for registering letssackrevak.com and filed the snottiest independent expenditure form we’ve ever seen.
Getting in the spirit of Thanksgiving
As is tradition: