The Alaska Redistricting Board’s return to the drawing table has been a largely miserable affair with heated testimony, bitter dustups between members of the board and naked partisanship as conservatives push increasingly strained logic for splitting the deeply conservative Eagle River.
A parade of conservatives has argued everything from bears and avalanches to septic tanks make the most logical pairing for Eagle River’s southern state house district not Eagle River’s northern state house district but the house district in South Anchorage, which is separated by the Chugach Mountains and a minimum of a 30-minute drive. The plan would essentially maintain the same Republican advantage from the maps that were struck down by the Alaska Supreme Court as a political gerrymander, and at least two of the board’s three-member conservative majority have already signaled support for it.
But not every Republican has been on board, including two people that likely know better than most: The two incumbent Republican senators who represent Eagle River and South Anchorage.
Sens. Roger Holland and Lora Reinbold, who would be paired together under the GOP-favored proposal known as Map 3B, both testified this weekend that the pairings made no sense and would make effectively representing the areas with their differing policy interests—which go beyond bears, avalanches and septic systems—a near-impossible task.
“Map 3B is absolutely ridiculous, this is all I can say when you’re trying to have us paired with Girdwood and the Indian/Whittier area,” said Reinbold, adding that she’s followed the lawsuits and thought Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews “did a very good job exposing the gerrymandering in the district. I believe Map 3B actually makes it much worse. … I strongly encourage keeping Eagle River together, we’re a very strong community and I think that is the one that makes the most sense.”
Map 3B was proposed by former Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich as well as conservative board member Bethany Marcum. Marcum proposed the initial Senate pairings that the courts found intentionally advantaged Republicans at the expense of others. Board chair John Binkley has also signaled his support for the plan.
When asked how she would get from one end of the proposed Eagle River/South Anchorage senate district, Reinbold said it’d be by roads that cross through much of the rest of Anchorage. Going from the nearest edges of the Eagle River and South Anchorage districts would take about 30 minutes while going to the farthest reaches of the South Anchorage district, which reaches into Whittier, would take longer.
“Maybe at least a two-hour drive, which is ridiculous,” Reinbold said, adding that the only in-district connection would be the 21-mile Crow Pass Trail. “You could walk over the trail, but that’s ridiculous. The bottom line is driving two hours through the Anchorage municipality absolutely makes no sense, so I think there would be constitutional issues as well. That is a long, long way away. Our children wouldn’t be going to schools together. … I believe Map 3 will very much hurt Eagle River.”
Holland testified at length about the problems created by representing a Senate district with differing and competing areas, which he said is the case with his current Senate district that lumps East Anchorage and South Anchorage’s Hillside communities together. He acknowledged that the board has broad powers when it comes to interpreting what the Alaska Constitution is asking for with senate districts but said he didn’t believe the connection crossing the Chugach Mountains would stand up to scrutiny.
“I do believe Map 3B will have constitutional problems,” he said. “The idea that there’s a 33-mile contiguous border between Eagle River and South Anchorage in that Map 3B, that border might as well be the Berlin Wall for being impassable. … I do believe that (the courts) indicate contiguous as meaning access and flow. There is absolutely no flow of trade, commerce or anything between Eagle River and South Anchorage.”
He added that such a district would create representation issues for legislators. He noted that the East Anchorage and South Anchorage parts of his current district are often at odds. A single project in the East Anchorage community, which includes busy arterial streets, easily dwarfs anything that comes out of sparser Hillside areas, he said, and he’s worried it’d be worse under the GOP-favored map.
He said he favored Map 2, which was offered by the East Anchorage plaintiffs, because it kept similar communities together and fixed many of the problems he says have existed under the prior maps.
“Map Number 2 pairings, I thought what a great pairing. It really resolves, in my mind, a lot of the complications I had seen in District N,” he said, referring to his current Senate district. “I was saddened to see Map 3 rear its head. … As a senator having to represent Eagle River and South Anchorage, there are challenges to be a present, meaningful participant in the community when, by my count, I have to travel through or touch parts of 11 districts.”
The Alaska Redistricting Board is set to resume hearings on Wednesday and Thursday, where it’s expected to at least take a preliminary vote on which of the two plans it supports. It could also adopt an entirely different plan based on the feedback to the first two. The board had initially considered a plan that would’ve changed all eight of Anchorage’s state Senate districts but withdrew that plan last week to focus on plans requiring fewer changes.
Potential legal challenges on the horizon
The board has a deadline of Friday to update the Alaska Superior Court on its progress, but it’s already facing a threat of further legal challenges.
The East Anchorage plaintiffs last week sent a letter to the Alaska Redistricting Board warning that they were already straying away from the court’s instructions and could end up back in court.
“Any plan that perpetuates the political gerrymander recognized by the court, namely the fragmentation of Eagle River into two separate senate districts to increase representation by the majority political party in the Alaska Senate, exceeds the board’s limited scope of authority,” argues a letter sent by East Anchorage’s attorney Holly Wells to board counsel Matt Singer. “The board’s refusal to recognize its limited authority throughout this week’s proceedings, and its continued consideration of plans that repeat the political gerrymander rejected by the court cause grave concern for East Anchorage plaintiffs.”
The letter also points out that board chair John Binkley voted against the remedy for the other problem area identified by the Alaska Supreme Court. While the Alaska Supreme Court said that the fix for the Cantwell Carveout was simple, Binkley argued against the fix because he felt the court had gotten it wrong. Binkley and Marcum, the board’s two most conservative members, also voted in favor of including a proposed Senate map that would’ve required the board redraw the Anchorage-area House maps, which even the board’s attorneys said would likely be going too far.
The East Anchorage plaintiffs argue that these two cases “lends credence” to their concerns the board’s not following the rules.
“East Anchorage Plaintiffs respectfully request that you remind members of the board that the intent of the majority of its members to split Eagle River between two senate districts to increase the representation for the majority for the majority political party in the state Senate has been proven by plaintiffs and found by the court to be intentional and illegal,” Wells argues. “In other words, the illegality of the board’s fragmentation of Eagle River, and the intention behind it, is not in question or up for interpretation. The board’s impermissible intent does not somehow disappear simply because the board replaces one group of diluted voters with another.”
The letter closes with a warning that if the board pushes ahead with the plan to split Eagle River, then the East Anchorage plaintiffs will move forward with further litigation.
Maybe Binkley is trying to replicate redistricting from a decade ago, where we ran one election on the flawed plan before the courts approved a plan that corrected the flaws. I’m not sure how that advantages the Rs, except maybe to preserve a senate majority in the new era of open primaries. Holland beat Giessel because of the closed R primary. Since open primaries (and ranked choice) provide advantage to moderates–who might join a multiparty coalition–then the right wing seeks to blunt that advantage, however briefly, via redistricting. I’m just spitballing, could be wrong. Why else would Binkley ignore the Supreme Court’s reasoning? Please explain.