Democrats blast board's redistricting proposal

COURT FIGHT LOOMS: 10-10 party split in the Senate is jeopardized.

June 7, 2011 

Just a day after a state panel approved new district boundaries for all 60 Alaska state legislators, the plan was drawing fire from Democrats who called it partisan and "deeply flawed."

Alaska Redistricting Board members and staff say they knew they couldn't please everyone but did the best they could to fairly redraw lines for legislative districts to reflect population shifts over the last 10 years.

The board is made up of four Republicans and one Democrat.

The lone Democrat, Marie Greene, a Native corporation leader from Kotzebue, has disputed that the process was political.

"Overall the plan is a reflection of over 30 public hearings, hundreds of emails received, hundreds of individual pieces of public testimony that we received at hearings, and input from groups at both ends of the political spectrum," said board executive director Taylor Bickford.

The panel unanimously approved a final plan Monday afternoon that still is subject to minor tweaks. It renumbered the districts Tuesday. Under the plan, House District 1 will be a Fairbanks district that includes Fort Wainwright. For years, the numbering system started in Southeast.

The board must issue a formal proclamation approving the new districts and legal descriptions by June 14, under a deadline set under a state constitutional amendment.

Their work is sure to be challenged in court, as has every redistricting plan since statehood.

"There are hard choices that have to be made, and some of those choices, people will look at this map and go 'we don't like those choices, therefore we are going to sue you,' said Michael White, the board's attorney. "I think this plan has as a good a chance as any ... to pass constitutional muster." White was the lead attorney for the challengers 10 years ago.

Critics will have 30 days after the board adopts a proclamation to bring lawsuits.

"That's one of the things we'll be discussing and we'll definitely reserve the right to consider," said Vince Beltrami, co-chair of one of the advocacy groups, Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, which includes unions and Native corporations. He's president of the Alaska AFL-CIO.

Democrats in particular are concerned about the possibility that newly drawn districts may upset the current 10-10 split between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. If 11 or more Republicans were elected, the two-party coalition that rules the Senate might be shattered and the GOP could rule alone.

Democrats say the new plan could mean trouble for these Democratic senators:

• Bettye Davis, Alaska's only black state legislator. She represents an East Anchorage district, but under the board plan her district shifts north to take in part of Eagle River, a more conservative area.

• Bill Wielechowski, who represents a different stretch of East Anchorage. As proposed, his district includes Elmendorf Air Force Base, where voters also tend to vote more conservatively.

• Fairbanks Democrats Joe Paskvan and Joe Thomas, who were put into the same Senate district and would have to run against one another if they chose to seek re-election.

"Thereby removing one Democrat and maybe two, depending on the results of the general election," Thomas said.

The board appears intent on disrupting the ruling coalition, he said. "I think that's an actual plan."

The board specifically didn't concern itself with protecting incumbents, except in rare cases involving Alaska Natives, Bickford said.

The Alaska Democratic Party also complained that the board's map runs afoul of the state Constitution by failing to match legislative lines with borough and city boundaries whenever possible.

For instance, the Mat-Su Borough gained population and should have added a fifth House seat. But instead the plan includes just four seats that lie completely within the borough -- the same as it has now, the Democrats say.

Two other seats are partly in the borough. Most of the people in one -- which stretches from the Butte to Chugiak -- live in the borough, not the municipality of Anchorage, Bickford said.

"There's no question that's a Mat-Su district," he said.

The plan for Anchorage House districts largely mirrors proposals submitted by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, a registered Republican, and a group led by Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party.

But other groups, including one led by Democrats, also saw parts of their plans taken into consideration, Bickford said.

Ruedrich, a data expert and one of the regulars at the redistricting board meetings, said most incumbents will find themselves running in virtually new districts, which will likely invite a flood of challengers.

"People will see the opportunity of their lifetime to run," Ruedrich said.

One of the trickiest areas for the board was ensuring that the voting rights of Alaska Natives are not diminished. Many Native residents have moved from rural to urban areas, where their voting strength is diluted. The board struggled to draw six largely rural House districts and three in the Senate in which a Native candidate would have a good chance of winning election.

Board members Greene and PeggyAnn McConnochie, a Republican from Juneau, spent long hours tinkering with maps and census blocks, trying to create House districts with enough Native voters to satisfy the federal Voting Rights Act. The districts also had to have as close to total 17,755 residents as possible -- the goal for each House district statewide.

"It's this creepy crawly little game where you try to harm the state the least, you try to harm Natives the least," McConnochie said. "I'm not happy. Marie's not happy. But in the context of everything, we did the best we could."

Under the approved plan, the Aleutian Islands, for instance, are split into two House districts, which the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in a 1992 ruling.

On the flip side, the group succeeded in creating a Senate district that includes Bethel and the Wade Hampton area of southwestern Alaska, long a goal.


Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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