Alaska Redistricting Board narrows options for Anchorage state senate maps

Randy Ruedrich testifies to the Alaska Redistricting Board on Wednesday, April 6. (Photo courtesy Donna Mears.)

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The Alaska Redistricting Board narrowed its options for a court-ordered rewrite of the Anchorage-area state senate districts today, withdrawing a proposal for an areawide redraw.

After hearing public testimony this morning, the Alaska Redistricting Board is focusing its attention in on two plans that both require only half of the city’s eight state senate districts to be altered from what the board already approved. The key difference between the two is how they treat Eagle River, which will have an impact on how the deeply conservative community is represented in the Legislature.

One map is being proposed by the East Anchorage plaintiffs who successfully challenged the Alaska Redistricting Board’s decision to create a safely Republican senate seat from one of Eagle River’s two house seats and a swingy district covering South Muldoon in East Anchorage. Both the Anchorage Superior Court and the Alaska Supreme Court agreed that it was a political gerrymander that violated equal protections by elevating Eagle River’s vote at the expense of East Anchorage voters. The East Anchorage plaintiffs’ map, which has been relabeled by the board as option 2, would put the two Eagle River districts together, the two Muldoon districts together and make other necessary changes to neighboring districts. It is as follows:

The pairings as proposed by the East Anchorage plaintiffs.

The other map that is being proposed comes from former Alaska Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich as well as board member Bethany Marcum, whose comments that the original pairings would’ve given Eagle River the opportunity for “more representation” played a key role in the litigation. This map, which is called option 3b (it was reworked today to go from five changed districts to four) maintains the split of Eagle River, pairing the district that was previously paired with South Muldoon with the generally conservative South Anchorage/Girdwood district. Backers of it argue that the Eagle River and South Anchorage map is acceptable because the communities both have road service areas, fire dangers and bears. The areas don’t share any direct connection other than the Crow Pass trail that spans the Chugach Mountains that otherwise make it a roughly 30-minute drive through the rest of Anchorage to connect the two districts. Backers argue that shouldn’t matter as the Alaska Constitution only requires senate districts are touching. Many of those backers have also argued that their stout opposition to a similar arrangement during the Anchorage reapportionment process should have no bearing on their support for it now. This map is as follows:

The latest map favored by conservatives. It’s backed by both board member Bethany Marcum and former Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich.

Following the hearing, board members Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke withdrew a proposal, which has been called the Bahnke plan, that would reshuffle all the senate pairings. The proposal was drawn during the original redistricting process as an alternative to the plan proposed by Marcum and supported by the board’s conservatives. While Bahnke said she felt her proposal was still the best because it was never constrained by the decision to split Eagle River, she agreed that a more surgical approach was warranted and that they shouldn’t open the plan to new, unforeseen problems. The plan had also come under fire as a partisan plan put together with various conservative boogeymen, allegations that Bahnke has roundly denied.

Initial feedback

As far as testimony has gone so far, nearly every voice in favor of the plan that splits Eagle River have come from familiar Republican voices—including former Eagle River Republican Rep. Dan Saddler, conservative Anchorage Assemblymember Jamie Allard, extreme-right activist Judy Eledge and many others—who are all unified in saying that dividing Eagle River into two senate districts makes more sense than pairing Eagle River with Eagle River.

Not everyone from Eagle River or even from the conservative spectrum of the political world has supported it, however.

Former Eagle River Republican Sen. Randy Phillips called in today, testifying that Eagle River and South Anchorage may have superficial similarities but had no meaningful connection. Where some had claimed that a shared similarity with widespread use of septic systems, Phillips noted that the “vast majority” of the Eagle River district is on public, piped water. He also noted that Eagle River has one single road service area with membership pulled from local community councils where the South Anchorage seat has more than a dozen road service areas that are elected.

“The only thing that’s connecting Hillside with Eagle River is Chugach State Park, to be frank,” he said.  

Another conservative caller from Big Lake called in to blast the Bahnke plan as the work of enemies of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy (specifically naming attorney Scott Kendall, a favorite target of far-right media), but acknowledged the most sensible pairing for Eagle River is with Eagle River.

Much of the rest of the testimony opposed the South Anchorage and Eagle River pairing. Many testifiers, including some South Anchorage residents, argued that it made no practicable sense and that it was essentially just a new political gerrymander aimed at maintaining the boost to Eagle River’s representation at the expense of other areas.

“As a resident of Hillside, we have nothing in common with Eagle River. Contiguity over mountains is not contiguity,” said Doug Robbins, who went on to blast the board’s Republican members for repeating the same ploy. “I’m really struck by the complete lack of remorse on the part of the Republican mapmakers who willfully proposed an illegal map with the intent of leveraging the Republican majority in Eagle River into an additional senate seat. The attitude of the Republican mapmakers then and still is to do whatever they can get away with. The remand to the board was not a license to pursue new ways of unconstitutional gerrymandering. … Option 3 is clearly the same kind of gerrymander that was rejected by the courts.”

Next steps

The Alaska Redistricting Board is not expected to take up significant debate or action on either plan until mid-week next week. In the meantime, it has scheduled a trio of additional public testimony opportunities on ThursdayFriday and Saturday. It appears that the board will take testimony at its hearings scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday of next week, which will likely be held in the evenings, to allow additional public input once they’ve had the opportunity to discuss and debate their preferences. It will also be taking written testimony throughout the process.

The deadline for the board to provide a status update to the Anchorage Superior Court is April 15. As the conservative board members have noted, the deadline is only for a status update and is not technically a deadline for new maps.

Battles continue

Things are still very tense between the board’s core conservative members, Bethany Marcum and John Binkley, and its nonpartisan members, Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke. Tempers flared in particular when Bahnke commented that it was a “magical coincidence” that both Marcum and Ruedrich landed on the same plan.

Board Chair John Binkley, who has already tipped his support for the GOP plan, has also continued to tilt with the Alaska Constitution and the Alaska Supreme Court. He refused to sign off on the board’s simple fix to remove the Cantwell Carveout, arguing that the Alaska Supreme Court was “very inconsistent” in ordering the removal of the plan. By his incorrect reading of the ruling, he claimed the Alaska Supreme Court intentionally ignored public testimony that supported the carveout and suggested they ought to maintain it in defiance of the Alaska Supreme Court.

Other members, including conservative board member Budd Simpson, pointed out that Binkley’s reading of the ruling was incorrect. The ruling, they pointed out, was the carveout violated the compactness requirement of the Alaska Constitution.

Throughout the process, Simpson has generally found himself playing mediator between the two sides and working to find solutions before the conflicts derail the board’s work. He’s in a position to be the deciding vote on the Senate pairings.

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