Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to catch up and make sense of the news from this week in Alaska politics.
The ongoing trend of overlapping the work from The Midnight Sun Memo and this column is ongoing. Still, we’ve found a few tidbits to get in here even for you loyal newsletter readers. (And we still appreciate you even if you’re not following the newsletter, but we would appreciate you even more if you were go and sign up for it).
As a suggestion from a friend of the blog, here’s a handy way to jump to the new stuff for anyone who’s already done the required reading: Too long; already read.
From 60 to zero
Just as things were starting to feel like “normal” following the House’s torturous 31 days without organization, everything came crashing to a halt this week following Tok Republican Rep. Mike Cronk’s covid-19 diagnosis on Wednesday evening. Much of the business has either been canceled or moved online while the building’s contact tracers untangle the potential exposures created by Cronk and the 15 close contacts he racked up during three days of working in the Legislature. Understandably, there’s been a lot of frustration and anger over the whole case—not helped by what sure looks like Cronk’s attempt to blame it on Juneau and not his traveling to attend the Alaska Outdoor Council’s fundraiser in Palmer without a mask. “It’s like going from zero to 60 back to zero,” one politico said of the frustration about the stalled out business.
It’s unclear just if and when things will get back to “normal” as they work out potential other cases and adapt to online-focused hearings. While the House hasn’t voted to update its rules regarding remote floor sessions (apparently out of a mixture of opposition from both the anti-capitol move crowd and the extreme-right), committees can do nearly everything remotely except for advance legislation, which requires committee members to physically sign reports. House Speaker Louise Stutes announced that moving forward, the House will be working weekends to make up for lost time.
There’s also been something ranging from anger to exhaustion over the fact that Cronk brought the virus into the building after a month of things going reasonably well. Like Reinbold’s flouting of masks, the carelessness reinforces the message that some number of folks in the building can’t be bothered to go through the basic inconvenience of caring about the health of others. A lot of folks feel like they’re in the dark about what’s going on, though that can likely be chalked up to the fact that to be considered a close contact, you need to be in their presence for 15 minutes. Passing by in the hallway is probably not particularly risky. Still, there are quite a few legislators and staffers who are closely watching the tape from the several hearings Cronk attended this week.
Rep. Sara Rasmussen’s announcement about restarting the Legislature’s Women’s Caucus with Rep. Ivy Spohnholz should have been a happier announcement on Wednesday than it was. That’s because, as you’ve likely heard by now, it was immediately followed up by an incredibly dumb birthday speech for Rasmussen by Rep. Zack Fields. In one of his later apologies, he tried to explain that his comments remarking upon and sexualizing Rasmussen’s body were an attempt to poke fun at a Facebook post. It was a bad look on its own and an even worse look when it was coming directly after the announcement of the Women’s Caucus, which is borne out of precisely these kind of sexist and demeaning treatment from male colleagues of all political stripes. Plus, when the comment section of Must Read Alaska thinks you’re funny, then you can be pretty sure you’ve messed up. His first attempt at an apology didn’t go over well but his second apology and follow-up efforts seem to show at least a little more awareness of the deep hole he’s dug for himself.
Should Rep. Fields resign? Probably not, and acting like his conduct is a repeat of the criminal activities of former representatives doesn’t help anyone. (That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t face political consequences at the next election.)
The whole thing is a reminder for men that no matter how progressive you think you are, or how much you’ve done for the progressive cause, you still have room for improvement. What was so frustrating about Fields’ comments is that sort of thing isn’t new, but something women in Alaska politics have been putting up with in one form or another forever.
Apologizing, being open and honest about your mistake, and taking the consequences on the chin is a start.
It should also be pointed out that this isn’t anyone’s job but Fields’ to clean up. Not Rasmussen’s, not female legislators’, and not female staffers’. It’s not a woman’s job to prove that sexism exists or hold your hand on your personal journey to be better (but if you must, here’s a Friday in the Sun column where we reached out to many different women from many different fields of Alaska politics to candidly talk about their experiences that is a start).
If you want to feel better about gender equity in the Alaska Legislature, then be sure to check out Thursday’s hearing of the House Health and Social Services Committee where Reps. Tiffany Zulkosky, Liz Snyder and Ivy Spohnholz had far more important things to do than picking up after Fields: Namely, pushing around Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum over the utterly inadequate explanation of why his department has been so hard to oversee that it must be split during a pandemic with next to no legislative oversight.
The trio came loaded for bear, shooting holes in Crum’s half-hearted defense of the plan left and right. Best I can tell, the whole plan seems to be focused on addressing turnover problems at the Office of Children’s Services—a very real and very serious problem that has plagued the agency—and that the only solution is to split the entire department into two with a new slate of executive jobs (while cutting loads of jobs in the Division of Public Assistance). There’s also something in there about synergy, trimming the number of hats people want to wear, and, of course, efficiencies.
A big concern is the speed at which the whole plan was announced and is coming together—less than six months—and the lack of meaningful engagement with stakeholder groups all over the state. Specifically, there’s significant concerns about its impact on the Office of Children’s Services’ federal funding.
Asked if there was a transition plan, Crum said there really doesn’t need to be one because everyone’s emails and phone numbers will be the same (they’re just getting an entirely new slate of unknown bosses). Asked if they’ve had any outside groups evaluate and provide input on the plan, Crum admitted they hadn’t, but said, without evidence, that “this is absolutely the best way to provide better services to Alaskans.” Asked about outreach to affected communities, Crum talked about having conversations (failing to mention that most of those conversations have left groups with more questions and concerns). It was not particularly inspiring.
“What I’m hearing is there is a lack of leadership capacity,” Spohnholz said at one point, wondering why, in the middle of a pandemic and budget crisis, the state was pushing ahead with a plan that would cost about $5 million more every year.
They were largely unimpressed with the administration’s claims that it would cut the budget because most of the cuts they point to—reductions to the Division of Public Assistance, namely—were already made under the existing structure.
However, with the abbreviated session and everything else going on, it’s not entirely clear whether the Legislature will be able pump the brakes on this plan. The budget—where the administration will still need to get funding for the plan—is likely the big decision point.
Ok, so there IS some new stuff to slide into this column. We got wind of some polling on Eagle River residents about Rep. Kelly Merrick’s decision to break from the Republicans and support the majority. Take all polling with a grain of salt, particularly when the questions are narrowly tailored but 65% of the respondents said they supported Merrick voting for a Republican speaker (😐) and 57.5% said they thought she should be part of a bipartisan majority with a Republican Speaker (again, 😐). The oppose and don’t knows for those two questions are 16.4% no/18.6% don’t know and 15.9% no/26.5% don’t know, respectively.
On what was an incredibly packed Wednesday, we got news that Chief of Staff Ben Stevens was on his way out of the administration to take a job with ConocoPhillips. While we initially heard it was one of those “you can’t fire me, I quit” situations, it sounds like it was more of a plan in the making for a while. Which makes sense with the whole cushy oil exec job he has lined up, but it has left a lot of people wondering just how that whole thing comports with AS 39.52.180, the state law barring public officers from immediately going to lobbying jobs after leaving state service. They can get waivers from the Attorney General on this front, but it’s not clear if such a waiver has actually been issued.
It’s an issue that we haven’t seen reported much elsewhere, but the Alaska Public Interest Research Group’s Executive Director Veri Di Suvero raised it in a statement sent out this week: “The Alaska Public Interest Research Group (AKPIRG) has posed a question to Attorney General Taylor today: ‘Has a written waiver been submitted and approved by Gov. Dunleavy’s newly appointed attorney general re: his chief of staff’s new position with ConocoPhillips, as per AS 39.52.180. Restrictions on employment after leaving state service?’ We still don’t know because he won’t respond.”
They continued, “There are reasons why these codes of ethics are set in law. The two-year waiting period exists in order to avoid public officers leveraging sensitive information, gained while in service, for the benefit of certain private corporations. By ignoring Alaska’s code of ethics, which restricts employment of certain public officials after leaving state service, the Dunleavy/Meyer administration again fails in its commitment to restore the public trust in government.”
Remembering Katie Hurley, the original #akleg nerd
On Monday, we got news that iconic Alaskan Katie Hurley had died Sunday at the age of 99 while in the company of family members. Hurley has been involved with the State of Alaska from its territorial days, working in the office of Territorial Governor Earnest Gruening and serving as the chief clerk to the Alaska Constitutional Convention in 1955 and 1956 (she was one of the last living people to have participated in it). She went on to serve as president of the Alaska Board of Education, the executive director of the state Women’s Commission, the Alaska Senate secretary for five sessions, won the first statewide election as a woman when she was elected as the Alaska Democratic Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor in 1978 and in 1984 was elected to the Alaska House representing the Mat-Su Valley. She continued to be active in progressive politics in Alaska and her involvement touched many of today’s politically active Alaskans, including taking part in the 2009 Conference of Young Alaskans that commemorated the Constitutional Convention.
“Katie Hurley always seemed like one of the most positive, bright and deeply happy people I knew,” wrote Pat Race, of Alaska Robotics and Midnight Sun comics, on Twitter. “She was such a generous mentor during the Conference of Young Alaskans.”
Thanks to the work of KTOO and Gavel Alaska, interviews with Hurley and many other iconic Alaskans like Jay Hammond, Jack Coghill and Vic Fischer were recorded throughout the 2000s as part of the series “Alaska Statehood Pioneers: In Their Own Words.” The interviews are treasures, a reminder of the talent, intelligence, foresight and compassion of the folks who helped draft the Alaska Constitution and shape the 49th state. Watch: Episode 7: Katie Hurley.
Here’s a few of the many quotes that stood out to me that ought to give you an idea of the trailblazer that Hurley was. When she ran for Lieutenant Governor, she remarked about how much of a challenge it was to enter a race when support was typically reserved for male candidates.
“In fact we had to mortgage our house to get some money cause they weren’t giving women candidates much money in those days. I didn’t have much money so I wasn’t able to travel to as many villages, but I had those seven years on the State Board of Education and I had no idea that so many people knew me” she recalled, noting that she was initially feeling over her head with the whole thing… until she heard other candidates speak. “I wasn’t very good in the beginning I know that. It was tough for me to have make speeches and as I said I really felt like I was, you know, over my head for a while until I met some of the other candidates and watched them.”
(I’m sure many in today’s political world can relate.)
As the chief clerk of the Alaska Constitutional Convention, she was charged with producing the minutes reporting the deliberations of the day. She said she was peeved that those minutes were ultimately signed and approved by Secretary Tom Stewart, who she remarked “wasn’t even there.”
“As a woman now I would have screamed my head off, but then I was just so glad to be there,” she said.
As someone who’s spent the good deal of the last decade watching and reporting on the deliberations of the Alaska Legislature, Hurley’s excitement and thankfulness for the opportunity to see first-hand the formation of the Alaska Constitution really shines through in her interview. Rarely do we get to think of debates as “exciting” because so much of today’s politics happens behind closed doors. Votes have already been counted, amendments have already been vetted and the outcome has already been determined. I can only think of a handful of times I’ve seen minds truly change during the course of a debate—and even fewer times where it made a difference for the final outcome of the vote—but that’s precisely what happened at the writing of the Alaska Constitution.
“Just the other day I said it was the biggest thrill of my life looking back to have had that opportunity to be there in that capacity because holding that position was way better than what – in my book – then what Tom Stewart was because he wasn’t present on the floor but rarely and then he had – he was gone during some of the most exciting debates in December when they were debating the judicial article and so forth,” she said. “I felt that I had witnessed statesmanship that I’ve never seen since.”
Hurly truly was the original #akleg nerd. She will be missed.
- Politico did an interesting rundown on the makeup of state legislatures and how they reflect or, more often than not, don’t reflect the state they represent. Alaska had one of the biggest gaps between its nonwhite population (39%) and nonwhite representation in the Legislature (13%) during last year’s legislative session. It was near the top of the pack of the gender divide when it comes to Republican-leaning states (though several Republican primaries have since changed that). It’s an interesting story that also discusses some of the hurdles that face nonwhite candidates and women from gaining office (basically put, it’s white men). From Politico: Why state legislatures are still very white — and very male
- Following Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s positive diagnosis for covid-19, folks recalled that he has a heart issue that, if you google it, might make things worse. But is that really the case? Well, it’s more complicated than that. Reporter Nat Herz, who has the same heart condition as Dunleavy, asked a doctor about what it means. From Nat Herz’s Twitter: I’m not a doctor, I just play one on the radio.
- The week after I arrived at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner all the way back in 2011, the staff sent the outgoing reporter off with a cake emblazoned with a bright blue natural gas flame. Little did I know just how much of the next six years I’d spend reporting, writing and thinking about the Interior’s never-ending quest to expand the availability of natural gas. When I rode along with crews installing pipeline in North Pole in 2015, there was talks about miniature pipelines, mega trucks and buildout plans that would have gas flowing by 2016, 2017 at the latest! Well, this week—just a mere six years after watching the groundbreaking on the North Pole project—gas is finally flowing to North Pole. “Good things come to those who wait,” North Pole Mayor Mike Welch said during remarks at the event. “We’ve waited long enough.” Aside from the potentially lower price of natural gas (this is trucked LNG, after all), the big boon for the Interior is when it comes to the area’s wintertime air quality, which can get very, very bad. From the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: North Pole now has natural gas
- Turns out Cordova’s anti-mask police chief Nate Taylor’s decision to flout the quarantine guidelines after a one-week out-of-state trip wasn’t a great idea. Upon returning, the police chief went on to coach a youth wrestling club and took part in a staff meeting. Now there are 19 covid cases since Taylor’s return in a community that had been free of new covid cases since Feb. 9 with zero active cases. Now, thanks to Taylor’s decisions, the community’s seen its schools closed thanks to an outbreak among students and businesses are closing voluntarily. “I don’t think this was done maliciously or intentionally, but we’ve been learning for the past year what to do to protect our community and our family and our workplace,” City Manager Helen Howarth told The Cordova Times. “I don’t want to use the word ‘unconscionable,’ but it almost is.” From The Cordova Times: Police chief who failed to quarantine linked to virus outbreak
Have a good weekend y’all. Don’t go and do anything that would get you a front-page spot on Jezebel.