by James Brooks, Alaska Beacon
September 29, 2022
This year’s vote on an Alaska constitutional convention has the potential to influence the availability of abortion here, the future of the Permanent Fund dividend, and dozens of contentious issues on a variety of subjects.
Despite the importance of the upcoming vote, political donors have thus far stayed away: According to the latest available campaign finance reports, groups advocating a convention and those opposing it have raised less than $1 million combined.
While observers suggest that figure will rise in the remaining six weeks before the election, it’s an unusually low number.
“I think, relatively speaking, it’s not a significant amount in comparison to other races and what we’ve seen in our history,” said Matt Shuckerow, a spokesperson for the leading vote-no group, Defend Our Constitution.
It’s less than has been raised by each of the three leading candidates for governor this year. It’s also less than what the leading candidates for U.S. House and Senate have received from donors, and it’s far less than the $14 million spent on the 2018 clean-water ballot measure or the $25 million spent on the failed 2020 oil tax initiative, both of which had significant statewide implications.
More than 95% of this year’s spending disclosed so far has come on the “vote no” side of the constitutional convention issue.
Defend Our Constitution raised $835,163 through Sept. 21, according to a disclosure report. Protect Our Rights, another vote-no group, reported raising $76,508 through Sept. 13.
The leading vote-yes group, ConventionYES, hasn’t filed a disclosure report. The group’s treasurer did not return calls or emails seeking comment for this article but the group told the Anchorage Daily News that it has raised less than $10,000.
Alaska Family Action, a group advocating restrictions on abortion, has raised $11,400 through Sept. 25, with most of that figure spent on the convention question.
State law requires reports on group expenses every 10 days. In the six weeks that ConventionYES has existed, it has not filed a report. In that time, it has set up a website and released a video outlining its position.
That video lists Jesse Sumner, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough assembly member, businessman and Republican candidate for state House, as the group’s No. 2 contributor.
Sumner said he recalls donating about $5,000.
“I’m not even absolutely decided on it,” Sumner said of the convention vote. “I just think, you know, if you’ve got a million bucks on one side, you need to have a fair hearing on both sides.”
“I imagine it probably doesn’t pass,” he said.
The other leading contributors were identified as individuals, Tom Grissom and Wade Erickson.
On the vote-no side, the largest contributor is the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a national progressive nonprofit with a history of donating to a variety of causes.
The fund, which has been labeled a dark-money group because the donors to the fund are not publicized, gave $500,000 to Defend Our Constitution in July.
“We chose to support Defend our Constitution because an impressive, bipartisan campaign working to protect democracy and civil liberties reached out and made a compelling case about how important this effort was for all of their constituents in Alaska,” the group said by email.
Convention supporters have been critical of the donation, saying it represents outside interests seeking to influence Alaska politics.
In a Sept. 23 forum, convention advocate Jim Minnery of Alaska Family Action sidestepped questions about the goals of the convention in order to criticize the donation.
Shuckerow, on the other side of the questions, said that criticism is a distraction from the question that will be on the ballot.
“I’ll just say that ConventionYES has continued to sort of distract from the basic issue, which is that the constitutional convention will create instability, have a chilling effect on the economy and is unnecessary. We have a very clear-cut amendment process that worked, and would encourage that be the path Alaskans take to make targeted changes to our constitution,” Shuckerow said.
He noted that the vote-no cause includes Republicans, Democrats, independents and Libertarians. Among the groups in opposition are unions, economic development organizations, environmentalists, fishermen and various local governments.
NEA-Alaska, the state’s leading teachers union, is the No. 2 donor to Defend Our Constitution. President Tom Klaameyer said there’s a direct threat to public education if the constitution is opened up.
“The threat there is because the constitution guarantees that public money can only be spent on public education, that it can’t be diverted to private interests, and if the old constitution is opened up, we feel like there are advocates for voucher systems that would essentially defund our public education system,” he said.
Among the financial supporters of Protect Our Rights is Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, which supports abortion rights in Alaska. The Alaska Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the privacy clause of the state’s constitution protects abortion rights.
Some convention proponents have said that changing the constitution at a convention is the first step to repealing abortion rights here.
In a legislative candidate forum in Ketchikan, Republican and Democratic candidates alike said they would not personally vote in favor of a convention.
“Not only no, but hell no,” said Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl, who said he worries about the Capitol being moved away from Juneau as a result of a constitutional convention.
With less money available for ads, campaigners have focused on group events like that forum, which was hosted by Southeast Conference, a regional political and business organization.
Shuckerow said that it’s important to have a “grassroots and grasstops” political organization that convinces existing groups, and those groups talk to themselves and their members.
“I think that’s very, very important as we head into Election Day,” he said.
Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: [email protected]. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.
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