Conservatives make push for Eagle River/South Anchorage state senate district

The Alaska Redistricting Board debates its upcoming schedule during its April 5, 2022 hearing.

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As the Alaska Redistricting Board formulates its fix to the Alaska Supreme Court order, conservatives have seemed to quickly coalesce around a plan put forward by former Alaska Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich (below, with the red Xs marking the districts that would not require changes) and it would maintain the deeply conservative Eagle River’s hold onto the driver’s seat of two Senate districts by once again reaching over the Chugach Mountains.

The Senate pairings proposed by Randy Ruedrich. Districts with a red X are unchanged from the districts approved by the Alaska Redistricting Board.

It would maintain the split in Eagle River by pairing one district with the South Anchorage/Girdwood district and maintain the other Eagle River district’s pairing with the JBER/Government Hill district. As public testimony has dragged on, more conservatives (Jamie Allard, former Eagle River Rep. Dan Saddler and former RNC delegate Fred Brown among many other recognizable names) have called in in support of this plan with a blanket accusation that the pairings proposed by board member Melanie Bahnke are somehow a political gerrymander and the work of Democrats. They argue the Eagle River/South Anchorage pairing is fair, citing road service areas, fire service areas, avalanches, wealthy residents and bears among other factors.

None have been able to actually explain what about the Bahnke pairings makes them problematic, but one testifier tipped his hand when he said it would cause “us to lose two districts.” Before board member Nicole Borromeo could ask what exactly he meant, the caller had hung up. Unsurprisingly, it appears that this concept about the conservatives losing two seats under the Bahnke pairing comes directly from Must Read Alaska, which also appears to have been the source of the continued assertion that Bahnke’s proposal is the work of the Democrats.

Bahnke regularly took issue the characterization, noting that she had worked on the plan with Republican board member Budd Simpson. Even board counsel Matt Singer eventually suggested they stop identifying any plan as any individual’s work, a point that Bahnke was more than happy to support. Still, it’s created for several tense exchanges as Bahnke and member Nicole Borromeo have frequently sparred with conservative members Bethany Marcum and John Binkley. Bahnke, at one point, said her plan had even enjoyed the support of Binkley during a closed door meeting, to which he shot back, “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about” and said he never supported the plan.

Exactly what else the board will consider at this point isn’t clear.

Marcum has so far refused to put anything of her own on the record for the public to review, but today said that several of the testifiers and emailed correspondence have given her ideas for what to do next. Borromeo has accused the board of stall tactics to buy time for conservatives.

Aside from the potential GOP advantage contained in the Ruedrich map, which has the net effect of keeping Eagle River in the driver’s seat of two Senate districts, the conservatives have flocked to it with the argument it requires fewer House district changes. Bahnke’s plan, which is becoming Board Version 1, would require all eight of the Anchorage area’s districts to be altered. Board counsel Singer has noted that the court would likely want to see minimal changes to the overall maps, suggesting that they try to minimize the number of districts that require changing. This is probably a correct course of action because it’d make for fewer new opportunities for legal challenges to be filed (say, by someone challenging South Anchorage’s pairing with Eagle River).

To that end, the East Anchorage plaintiffs have proposed their own plan that reduces the required changes further than what was proposed by Ruedrich. This map would pair Eagle River’s two house districts together into a single senate district and focus the changes in just the northern side of the city. In total, only four Senate districts under this plan would be changed, two of them being the same proposal as Ruedrich had made. Here’s what it would look like:

The Senate pairings proposed by the East Anchorage plaintiffs. Districts marked with a red X are unchanged from the pairings already approved by the Alaska Redistricting Board.

I think this case for fewer changes is a good one. It maintains certainty for whatever candidates have already been campaigning and gives voters certainty about who to support and where they’ll be voting. It’s also a way for the board to be consistent and clear in its legal thinking behind these plans, lessening accusations of gerrymandering.

Also, if we’re being really clear. There is a way for the Alaska Redistricting Board to make the change by impacting only three already-approved Senate districts. However, this one wouldn’t unite the two Muldoon districts that have been at the heart of the trial. It should be noted, though, that the court has not mandated that the South Muldoon district be placed with any other specific district other than saying it can’t go with Eagle River (and, I’d argue, that it also shouldn’t go with the neighboring Hillside district as it’d raise similar problems to the Eagle River pairing).

How to truly minimize the number of district changes.

The path ahead

The Alaska Redistricting Board adopted a schedule that should see resolution on either Wednesday or Thursday of next week. The next big deadline is tomorrow, when the board has set a deadline for initial public testimony and public-submitted maps for consideration. The board has also scheduled additional public testimony days on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Debate on maps and a final decision would be slated for a pair of back-to-back meetings on Wednesday and Thursday of next week. Here’s the schedule:

Tomorrow’s deadline is the main one to keep in mind in terms of public engagement. You can testify in-person at the Anchorage LIO, via phone (Anchorage at 907-563-9085, Juneau at 907-586-9085 and other at other at 844-586-9085) or on the board’s website here.

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