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The Alaska Redistricting Board voted 3-2 today to adopt the GOP-favored proposal to redraw half of Anchorage’s state senate districts in response to the Alaska Supreme Court upholding a ruling that found the initial map “constituted an unconstitutional political gerrymander” because it favored Republicans at the expense of others.
The final map today was approved by the board’s three-member conservative majority—chair John Binkley, Budd Simpson and Bethany Marcum—who argued that the most sensible match for the deeply conservative Eagle River house district was not the other deeply conservative Eagle River house district but a conservative-leaning South Anchorage house district. The candidate filing deadline is June 1, and the board has a Friday deadline to update the courts on its efforts to rectify the maps.
Board members Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke put up fierce opposition to the GOP-favored map, arguing that they hoped the courts would be swift in overturning what they said was another gerrymander to favor Republicans.
“I just think it’s very audacious for us to actually think that (Superior Court) Judge Matthews isn’t going to sniff this out,” Bahnke said.
While the court ruling found the pairing of East Anchorage and Eagle River was unconstitutional and must be reversed, it wasn’t prescriptive in the solution. After a week of often heated public testimony, the board adopted two plans that broke up East Anchorage and Eagle River. Both only required four of the city’s eight senate districts to be altered and both treated East Anchorage the same by pairing them together. The difference was how each plan handled Eagle River.
One map was proposed by the plaintiffs in the East Anchorage case, which put Eagle River with Eagle River. The other map, which was the one ultimately adopted by the board, was proposed by former Alaska Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich as well as conservative board member Marcum. That plan would split Eagle River, pairing one district with a South Anchorage/Girdwood house district over the Chugach Mountains and the other with the JBER/Government Hill house district, and essentially keeps the GOP stronghold of in control of two Senate districts.
The conservatives argued they needed to protect the military “community of interest” shared between the JBER/Government Hill district and Eagle River. Board member Budd Simpson, who was considered to be the closes thing to a swing vote, said it was the deciding factor for him and argued that putting the military base with a Democratic-leaning district would disenfranchise military voters (this was a common thread shared by the conservatives, but never explained in any specific detail).
Members Borromeo and Bahnke noted the military isn’t actually viewed as a community of interest in the eyes of the law and that it certainly didn’t override Eagle River, which has actually been identified by the courts as a community of interest. They argued the result of the maps were the same as before, just swapping out East Anchorage voters for South Anchorage voters as the losers in the situation.
“I believe that the court sent this back to us to correct it,” Bahnke said of the ruling that found the board had gerrymandered the maps to Republicans’ advantage, “not to find a new way to continue to try to give Eagle River more representation.”
It should be noted that the conservatives were all appointed Republicans. Borromeo was appointed by former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, an independent who was formerly a registered Democrat, and Bahnke was appointed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger.
Binkley and the other conservatives denied the allegations that they were gerrymandering this time around. They also pointed out that Republican Sens. Lora Reinbold and Roger Holland, who represent Eagle River and South Anchorage, had testified against the GOP-favored maps as evidence that there was no partisan ploy.
Borromeo objected. She pointed out that Reinbold and Holland were not favored by the party and would be forced to run against each other in the new maps, ensuring at least one is sent home in this year’s elections.
“We were not just accused of partisan gerrymandering last time, in fact we were found guilty not once, but twice,” she said. “What we’re doing here as a board is we’re co-signing the Republican party’s cannibalization of themselves. They’ve got a problem with Sen. Holland because he won’t move certain bills out of his committee and Sen. Reinbold is a loose cannon and they can’t control her. So, the best option is instead of taking them out in broad daylight at the polls, they’re going to come in through the dark of night, under the redistricting cloak to pair them against each other.”
Reinbold, who was banned from flying on Alaska Airlines last year over her refusal to mask and has accused Gov. Dunleavy of tyranny with the pandemic, has long been a headache for Republicans. Last year she was temporarily excluded from the Senate activities and was later stripped of her chairmanship over her feuds with the governor. Holland, who’s kept a much lower profile since beating former Republican Senate President Sen. Cathy Giessel (who appointed Binkley and also opposed this plan (and also lives in the same district as Holland where she’s been mounting an effort at a comeback, so it’d ultimately be a three-way race)), has recently come under fire for refusing to move anti-trans legislation, drawing fire from Gov. Dunleavy as well as the conservative media machine.
In defense of herself, conservative member Marcum said she wouldn’t give into the name-callers who accused her of gerrymandering and change her “very reasonable positions.” Borromeo said later that the name fit.
“I appreciate, Bethany, that you’ve been under a lot of public scrutiny, but the assertion that we’re calling you names is absolutely false,” she said. “I’ve called you a gerrymanderer and if you want me to stop calling you a gerrymanderer, then by all means stop gerrymandering.”
The East Anchorage plaintiffs have already signaled their opposition to how things have been playing out with the Alaska Redistricting Board, noting that Binkley voted against another court-ordered change where there was no ambiguity on the preferred resolution. It’s likely that the plaintiffs will take up the issue with the court once the status update is filed. It’s also possible that new legal challenges could materialize—from South Anchorage voters dissatisfied with being lumped together with Eagle River, for example—but they would likely face a longer path to resolution, which could run up against the June 1 candidate filing deadline.
At one point during the hearing, Borromeo accused Binkley of knowingly running out the clock. She claimed that he had been overheard during one of the hearings saying it would be “incredibly difficult” for the courts to require any further alterations to this plan ahead of this year’s elections in the event that the latest plans are similarly struck down. It’s not without precedence. During the 2010 round, the 2012 election was conducted under one map and the 2014-2020 elections were conducted with another.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Irrelevant,” Binkley said, speaking over Borromeo’s objections before hurrying to a vote, “We could go on all day about who said what or who felt they overheard somebody.”
Borromeo and Bahnke also raised questions about whether the board should take public testimony following the approval of the Senate maps. They claimed that the conservative board members were receptive to taking such testimony after adopting the senate maps but before finalizing the new proclamation—a point they denied, which Bahnke later called up a video clip corroborating her claim. Board counsel Matt Singer said he didn’t believe the second round of testimony was needed.
Binkley rejected their appeals for further testimony beyond leaving the board’s written testimony portal open. Besides, he said, they already approved a final plan.
“I’m not certain public testimony is going to change that,” he said. “I’m not sure the purpose of it.”
The plan was ultimately adopted on a 3-2 vote with Bahnke and Borromeo objecting. They similarly objected to the adoption of the new proclamation plan, signing the plan in-person as objectors (the agreed-upon resolution from the initial proclamation plan where Binkley initially suggested they shouldn’t be allowed to sign it if they didn’t support it). The conservatives signed digitally as supporters.
Borromeo said she hoped that when the courts ultimately find the plan is unconstitutional, the judges think twice about sending it back to the board. She said she hoped the courts would just make a decision themselves because she feared the conservatives would just find another way to bolster Eagle River’s representation.
“Don’t send it back.”