Alaska and the terrible, horrible, mostly bad year

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What kind of year was 2021? As I sat down to review the year—and talk with Pat Race about it for an upcoming episode of Hello Alaska—it’s hard to find a heckuva lot of positive from the world of Alaska politics. Most of the “good stuff” this year was, largely, just bad stuff that didn’t happen. After covering politics for more than a decade now, perhaps that’s just how stuff works or perhaps that’s a product of a pandemic that continues to drag on, marked by fleeting periods where things seem OK Enough, as we all get dragged down into a world of lies and anti-science rhetoric. But, hey, at least it’s interesting. And, hooboy, this year was an interesting one. But before we delve into the recap, though, I think it’s important to keep in mind that politics—as much as I am loathe to admit—isn’t everything. While 2021 might be the embodiment a dumpster fire, there’s a lot of half-way decent things both big and small that happened this year. For me, I finally limited out on Kenai River salmon (turns out there really are fish in that river), spent some truly quality time with friends and family (including a dog who got stitches and pulled them out) and got a new car (after totaling mine).

Off to a Bad Start

As the nation watched in horror as insurrectionists hopped up on the Big Lie and hydroxychloroquine stormed the U.S. Capitol, the Alaska Legislature was once again mired in uncertainty about its organization with both the House and the Senate undecided between slim Republican majorities and slimmer bipartisan coalitions. While the Senate opted for a slim Republican majority (more on that below), the House was once again faced with the question of whether it would form a barebones majority that would effectively give Rep. David Eastman and every other Eastman-like representative a deciding vote on everything. And if anyone needed more reason to be turned off by the notion of handing Eastman the keys to a committee—you know, beyond the racism, obstructionism and the fact that he’s been more eager to go after moderate Republicans than progressives—it was cemented with news that Eastman was one of the many to run off and play insurrectionist in D.C. While Eastman promises he didn’t inhale (he was just working on a slurpee), it put an underline on the entire situation and the House ultimately went in the bipartisan direction. That hasn’t stopped Eastman from continuing to make an ignoble name for himself… which was one of many to appear on a leaked copy of the membership of the far-right anti-government militia group, the Oath Keepers.

The silver lining: Rep. Eastman’s repulsive politics are still repulsive enough to scare off the moderate or two needed to prevent the Republicans from taking control of the House, putting him and his band of misfits (of whom only few have ever had the responsibility of being in a majority organization) in charge of committees. Still, it resulted in yet another late organization for the House that paved the way to legislators spending a record 212 days in session, which I guess isn’t so bad for the folks collecting per diem along the way.

All the the lies

Ah, the Caucus of Equals. Where 12 Republicans got together and thought giving Sen. Lora Reinbold control of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the middle of the pandemic was a good idea. Reinbold went right to work using one of the most important and bottle-neck-y committees in the building as a platform for to profess whatever conspiratorial nonsense she had last seen on Facebook. It did to the Senate process what the Ever Given did to the Suez Canal, snarling anything that needed to pass through the committee and requiring substantial logistics to route critical legislation around the blockade. It took more than an excavator or a strongly worded letter from Gov. Mike Dunleavy to ultimately clear the blockage, with Reinbold being finally removed three weeks after the big green tanker was extricated. While Reinbold surely isn’t alone in purveying this particular brand of constitutional fan fiction or pro-covid conspiracy, she does present just about the purest distillation of a trend—a righteously wrong reading of the constitution intended to touch on any number of conspiratorial, anti-science and racist dog whistles—that is reaching into everything from school boards to federal politics. Just what can be done about it all is unclear, but calling these outright lies “unproven medical treatments,” “baseless allegations about election integrity” and “misapreserentations of fundamental underpinnings of our democracy” don’t seem to be working.

Silver lining: At least you won’t find yourself debating the constitutionality of armrest etiquette with Reinbold on your next Alaska Airlines flight.

The state got closer than ever to shutting down

Needing 27 votes for the budget’s immediate effective date, the House fell four votes short as the House Republicans sought to leverage an operating government for a laundry list of demands from a larger dividend to clearly unconstitutional anti-abortion language.

While most of the rest of Alaska was enjoying the two-ish months where the pandemic finally looked like it was moving behind us, the Alaska state government was teetering closer to the edge of a shutdown than it ever had. Armed with a novel understanding of the budget’s effective date, the House minority Republicans sought to weaponize the very operation of state government in order to get that big PFD they and Gov. Mike Dunleavy—who backed up their antics, waiting until after the budget passed to start calling it “defective”—had hitched their political ambitions to. It was a truly remarkable development in the Alaska Legislature that doesn’t feel nearly as remarkable thanks to the disaster being ultimately averted with the formation of a non-binding working group that teed up two unproductive special sessions. We’d be all wise to remember that the Republicans have made it plenty clear just what lengths they’re willing to go to get what they want… and that they’re not particularly keen in compromise when it looked like the compromise wasn’t giving them everything they want. Without significant changes to how the legislative budgeting process goes, we’re likely to run into the same nightmare scenario once more and I doubt a non-binding working group will do the trick this time.

Silver lining: The fast turnaround time on the budget once again somehow seemed to catch the Dunleavy administration by surprise, resulting in another oopsie that saw $4 billion moved into the constitutionally protected corpus of the Permanent Fund.

Kelly Tshibaka takes aim at DMVs/Congress

Senate President Sen. Peter Micciche gives a thumbs up with future congressional candidate Kelly Tshibaka at a GOP fundraiser in October 2020.

Speaking of bad things that didn’t come to pass, before Kelly “Apparently, is somebody with a pulse” Tshibaka set her sights on unseating U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski with the power of thinly veiled swear words she was setting her sights on closing a bunch of DMVs as the commissioner of the Department of Administration. It was billed as a cost-saving measure that just so happened to open the door to a private company with connections to the administration to swoop in and provide the same services with a small, large fee. It such a tone-deaf proposal that even True Republicans who are supposed to be playing along couldn’t play along and it was ultimately and ignominiously scrapped. Her resignation to seek the U.S. Senate came just 39 days after the two-year mark of the state paying $81,277 to relocate her and her family from D.C. to Alaska, meaning she didn’t have to pay it back. In her short stint on the campaign trail, she’s also racked up a fish and game violation. You’d think that all taken together, it’d be the sort of thing to cool the jets on a congressional bid but you’d be forgetting the power of the Let’s Go Brandon “Movement.”

Silver lining: We all got a good laugh out of the ice-scraping video.

Anchorage is a clown car

Oof. Anchorage, man. I knew there was a reason I avoided diving too deeply into the politics of the state’s largest city, which was that it was doing generally fine enough to be mostly ignored. That was until Mayor Dave Bronson took over the wheel in July, promising a new direction for the city. That direction, it appears at six months in, is to run headfirst into a wall and wonder why the wall didn’t sign off on your big top circus tent shelter. It’s been an unending cavalcade of bungled decisions, political strong-man tactics and petty partisanship for the sake of petty partisanship. “If I wake up in the morning and the Left is—or the assembly at least—is not attacking me then I don’t enjoy that,” Bronson said in an interview that has proved to be about as good an explanation for everything going on as anything. Things have gotten so bad that when you hear that the Bronson administration meddled with the city’s water supply and has a shadowy faction of the police department reporting directly to the mayor, the general reaction has been: “Sure, I could see that happening.” (And it did happen.)

Silver lining: Perhaps the most notable takeaway from it all is just how revealing Bronson’s antics have been for this surge of extreme-right conservatism in Alaska. Based more on the principle of Owning the Libs than anything else, it’s served as a stark warning for other communities so much so that the administration tried—and failed—to shutdown a the mask meeting’s livestream lest everyone get too good a look at what where this new direction is headed. After several years of progressive losses, Fairbanks’ fall elections served as a strong turn in the trend that sent the most conservative, QAnon-loving candidates packing. And the recall targeting Anchorage Assemblymember Meg Zalatel failed by a wide margin despite some conservatives’ best efforts to dump big wads of cash on the race. Also, hey, Juneau elected an all-millennial assembly and Will Muldoon won a write-in campaign.

Redistricting as bad/better than expected

Board member Nicole Borromeo reacts with disgust after Alaska Redistricting Board chair John Binkley suggests the names of the two Alaska Native members be removed from the signatory page of the board’s report and, instead, they author a “minority report” during the board’s Nov. 10, 2021 hearing.

Let’s be clear. The house district maps produced by the Alaska Redistricting Board are not nearly as bad as we all would have expected… with the exception being of Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Grier Hopkins who saw his district go from light blue to deep red (sorry, bud). But the relatively good news ends with the board’s conservative majority bulldozing their way past the well-reasoned objections of board members Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke to implement a plan with no discussion and explanation… except for board member Bethany Marcum’s admission that it would give the conservative Eagle River—home of Lora Reinbold and Nazi-plate sympathizing Anchorage Assemblymember Jamie Allard—an opportunity for more representation in Juneau (Allard has since filed to run for the House where, admittedly, she’d probably cause less damage). Five groups have filed lawsuits against the board and are in the process of getting their hands on the board’s records and communications for an accelerated legal challenge with a due date to the Alaska Supreme Court of mid-February. Just what changes, if any, the court orders ahead of the June 1 filing deadline isn’t clear, but it’s set to have a significant impact on the layout of the Legislature and that’s not to mention that ranked choice voting thing.

Silver lining: There’s a fair bit of open seats, which may very well be filled with decent new faces… or not. Also, Reps. David Eastman and Christopher Kurka were paired together. Kurka is now running for governor with Joe Miller’s blessing. Also, if we were to be naming people of the year, the award would have to go to Borromeo and Bahnke, who did an excellent job at calling bullshit on the illusion of redistricting being anything but a political exercise.

Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation gets political

Hot off the plane to Juneau this December (during another one of those “Things Seem Fine” windows of the pandemic), a friend and I were talking about the state fo the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation because that’s the sort of thing we talk about when catching up nowadays. Somewhere in the conversation, I wondered aloud how long executive director Angela Rodell would be on the job given the very public disagreements she had with some of the Dunleavy-appointed members of the board about investor compensation given the size of the dividend (of which Rodell has no direct say in determining). Rodell warned that the fund should stay laser-focused on its returns and not wade into politics… specifically the politics of paying out the big dividend that Dunleavy had promised. Turns out, we’d get that answer in a matter of hours as the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation’s board of mostly Dunleavy-appointed trustees voted without explanation or discussion to remove Rodell from a job that by all accounts she had been pretty good at. Dillingham Rep. Bryce Edgmon in a pretty good summation of everyone’s responses: “What the hell is going on?”

Silver lining: At least the Legislature will have something to do this January other than reviewing the same ol’ fiscal presentations we always hear.

The start of the Midnight Sun Memo

It was about a year ago that some friends were getting on my case about this whole newsletter trend. You’d be good at it, they said. It sounds like something new and uncertain, I said, and a lot of extra work. Well turns out bullying works, and a year later I still find myself surprised and humbled on a near-daily basis that there are people like you who following and supporting my work. It’s given me new energy and helped strengthen my voice.

So, hey, 2021 might not be that bad after all.

Thank you all, and stay tuned to some new features coming to the newsletter in 2022.

All the best,

Matt Acuña Buxton

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