Alaska Redistricting Board’s conservatives were just as partisan as the first time, challengers say

Alaska Redistricting Board members Bethany Marcum, Budd Simpson and John Binkley (chair) moments before they would approve a plan for Senate pairings that boosts Eagle River's representation at the cost of minority communities during the Nov. 9, 2021 meeting.

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The Alaska Redistricting Board is set to be back in court at 10 a.m. Thursday for oral arguments in the latest lawsuit that accuses the board of effectively repeating the same partisan gerrymander that got them in trouble in the first place.

A brief today by the Girdwood plaintiffs—who argue that creating a Senate district from Eagle River and South Anchorage infringes upon their right to fair and equitable representation in the Legislature—lays out in lengthy detail how the board’s three-member conservative majority used backchannel communications to coordinate their effort maximize Republican influence in the Alaska Legislature.

The filing is a more revealing look at the backchannel communications between the three conservative members—Chair John Binkley, Bethany Marcum and Budd Simpson—than we got during the original trial brought by the East Anchorage plaintiffs (though, in that case the Marcum said the quiet part out loud). The briefing and appendixes reveal several behind-the-scenes texts, calls and emails the plaintiffs say are evidence the conservatives had their minds made up heading into the process.

“The majority Board members who voted to adopt Option 3B appear to have made up their minds early in the process, without waiting for or listening to the public testimony they insisted was so important, and to have communicated their intentions between them. … Private side communications between the three majority Board members continued throughout the remand process. Very few of them were in writing, perhaps in recognition that they would be requested in any ensuing litigation.”

Go deeper: Read the Girdwood plaintiffs’ filing. (Also at the bottom of this post)

And even deeper: Dig through the emails and text exchanges.

The briefing goes on to suggest that the board’s lengthy public hearings were just a show and that the board’s conservatives had already made up its mind well ahead of the final vote. It includes a text message exchange between Simpson and his wife, Paulette, where she seemed to suggest the conservatives were “doing well” in arguing that the most reasonable pairing for Eagle River’s one house district was not the other Eagle River house district but the South Anchorage district that’s separated by the Chugach Mountains.

Paulette: Good job; Budd: How long did I go on that?; Paulette: Kinda long but you made up for all the time you kept quiet/John doing well/Is Matt pushing something now?; Budd: I don't think so. Bethany doing well too.

“It is telling that Member Simpson and his wife did not say ‘John is agreeing with you,’ or ‘Bethany agrees with you,’” the briefing argues. “Instead, they said the other majority members were ‘doing well,’ evidently in service of a pre-arranged and pre-discussed common goal.”

The filing also reveals that Marcum had subscribed to the National Republican Redistricting Trust, a national Republican group that guides people on how to maximize conservative representation in the redistricting process (aka how to get away with gerrymandering), at some point. It’s not clear whether it was prior to the redrawing process or was during the process. The Girdwood plaintiffs argue either case is problematic:

“No other emails from the NRRT to Member Marcum were produced by the Board, despite the fact that the Trust sent monthly notices. There are two possible explanations: either Member Marcum withheld e-mails from production, or she first joined NRRT during the remand process. Either is problematic. Withholding documents is problematic for obvious reasons that bear on an individual’s credibility and good faith. For a Board member to join a partisan organization devoted to affecting legislative maps is problematic from a constitutional perspective. While individual Board members are free to hold their own personal political beliefs, the Constitution requires the redistricting process itself to be nonpartisan, and renders it inappropriate for a Board member to allow partisan politics to guide their decision, especially when that decision is contrary to the weight of the public testimony. Being a registered party member does not automatically cross this constitutional line, but joining an organization devoted to achieving a specific political party’s goals through redistricting while serving on Alaska’s Redistricting Board, does cross that line.”

During the earlier trial, Marcum’s comments and behavior was at the heart of the case. The court found that she did, in fact, have improper access to incumbent data, something she still continues to deny. Her comments that the original pairing would give Eagle River “more representation” also served as the smoking gun in the trial, cementing evidence of the board’s partisan machinations. It’s unclear whether the plan would have been found unconstitutional without that statement, but oral arguments before the Alaska Supreme Court suggest that you don’t need such a clear statement to infer intent. A full decision on that original case has not been published.

Either way, the Girdwood plaintiffs say everything taken into consideration puts Marcum’s credibility into question.

“Member Marcum’s involvement with NRRT, coupled with the Court’s earlier finding that she had acted to increase Eagle River’s representation for partisan objectives and her ongoing denial that she had reviewed incumbent data, renders her vote for Option 3B, and her reasons for that vote, suspect,” the briefing argues.

Similarly, the Girdwood plaintiffs also lay out several email exchanges that member Simpson that the plaintiffs say show he was “preoccupied by partisan politics.” One is an email to an undisclosed number of contacts that shows he was aware of the partisan advantages contained in the original plan and warned against Democrat efforts to chip away that advantage.

“To me this implies that what the court perceived as a political gerrymander must be replaced with a different political gerrymander more to their liking. The district in question paired two house districts that were both majority non-minority, one of which was reliably republican, and the other was republican 2/3 of the time,” he wrote. “Not clear to me why this is bad but the Ds will push to dilute both of them to make it easier to elect their candidates.”

It also points out how Simpson’s contacts were regularly sending him articles covering the proceedings from a political perspective, including several of my own posts. As the briefing explains: “Member Simpson made his feelings on some of these articles clear, for example responding to one such email by calling Matt Buxton, who operates The Midnight Sun, a ‘POS’ (shorthand for ‘piece of shit’).”

It continues: “He forwarded another article to a writer for Must Read Alaska with whom he appears to be friendly, who responded with a one-line comment: ‘Those 2 women are bitches of the highest order!’, presumably referring to Members Bahnke and Borromeo, who had opposed the adoption of Option 3B.” (Per the footnotes, that writer is Win Gruening, who was also sending along several of my posts to Simpson.)

Board Member Melanie Bahnke, one of the two referenced in the email by Gruening, responded to the disclosure with some good humor.

“I’ve been promoted from regular ‘bitch’ to ‘Bitch of the highest order’ is this like getting knighted but for Bitches? I’ll take ‘BOHO’ any day over ‘articulate’ or ‘eloquent’ – both used condescendingly regarding me during this process,” she wrote on Twitter. “Also today is my birthday so can we declare today Statewide BOHO Day? I know I’m not alone in being deserving of such an illustrious honor. To all you BOHOs out there – may we be them, may we know them, may we raise them!”

The rest of the briefing digs into the underlying issues with the board’s decision to pair Eagle River with South Anchorage and its faulty arguments around why the other Eagle River district must stay tied to the JBER/Downtown Anchorage district. Still, the message to the court on how to weight the actions and words of the board’s conservative majority is clear:

“As the Court reviews their actions and reasons for adopting Option 3B, these Board members do not deserve the benefit of the doubt or any presumption that they engaged in their remand work in a good faith effort to comply with the Courts’ orders.”

Filings

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