New Alaska legislative map forces early Senate elections

REDISTRICTING: Newly drawn boundaries create challenges, opportunity.

June 13, 2011 

All state senators except one will have to run for re-election in 2012 even if their terms aren't supposed to be up until 2014, a state panel charged with drawing new legislative lines decided Monday.

The only exception is Dennis Egan, a Democrat from Juneau.

At least two senators, including Senate President Gary Stevens, will have to face the voters three times in four years, if they chose to run.

Many legislative district boundaries were changed substantially by the Alaska Redistricting Board, creating both upheaval and opportunity.

The new legislative districts are intended to reflect population shifts documented in the 2010 U.S. Census. The work-intensive project comes every 10 years.

Under the approved plan, four House seats and two in the Senate will be wide open for the 2012 race, with no sitting legislator. A like number contain two incumbents paired up to run against each other if they decide to go for it.

The Alaska Redistricting Board approved the election schedule Monday as it finished up drawing new lines for Alaska's 40 House districts and 20 Senate seats.

"You certainly can't please everybody, but I think we've tried to be fair to everybody," board member Robert Brodie, a Republican from Kodiak, said Monday. "I hope that it serves the state well for the next 10 years."

The Alaska Democratic Party has charged that the board plan was partisan and designed to squeeze out Democratic senators and destroy the coalition of Democrats and Republicans that runs the Senate. The five-member board has four Republicans and one Democrat.

Board members and staff defend their work and say viewpoints from a rich variety of Alaskans and groups -- village residents and city mayors, unions and corporations, Democrats and Republicans -- were considered.

"The board has exercised as much care and caution as they could in attempting to reach out to the citizens in the state of Alaska and get their opinions on this," Brodie said.

The matter is sure to end up in court -- every redistricting plan since statehood has faced a legal challenge.

As a preemptive strike, the board Monday adopted a resolution that acknowledged it may not have stuck to every requirement for drawing districts laid out in the state Constitution and state law. But it only deviated to ensure it complied with federal law requiring that the voting strength of Alaska Natives not be weakened, the resolution said.

The new legislative maps do contain opportunity, with six open seats.

One, new Senate District C, is in the Fairbanks area and includes Chena Ridge and a stretch along the Richardson Highway. Some of the territory used to belong to Democratic Sen. Joe Thomas. But he was shifted into new Senate District B, which Democratic Sen. Joe Paskvan also calls home.

The other open Senate district is in Anchorage, new Senate District H, which includes parts of Spenard and the university area. Sen. Johnny Ellis, a Democrat, used to represent some of that area.

The open House seats are new District 5, in the Chena Ridge area; District 9, in Wasilla, District 13, which includes Elmendorf Air Force Base; and District 15, in Anchorage's university area.

The new legislative boundaries mean 12 incumbents in six districts must square off against one another if they all decide to run.

There's the Fairbanks matchup with Thomas and Paskvan, plus five more pairings.

• In a new central Anchorage district, Reps. Chris Tuck and Mike Doogan, both Democrats, are pitted against each other.

• In East Anchorage, Reps. Pete Petersen, Democrat, and Lance Pruitt, Republican, are matched up.

• In Southeast Alaska, Reps. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, and Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, are paired, as well as Sens. Al Kookesh, D-Angoon, and Bert Stedman, R-Sitka;

• And in rural Alaska, Alan Dick, a Republican whose listed residence is Stony River, is paired in a district with Dillingham Democrat Bryce Edgmon.

The four-year terms of Alaska senators are staggered, with half the Senate running every two years, under the state Constitution. But it's the norm in Alaska for a number of Senate terms to be shortened to two years after redistricting -- that happens when a Senate district is substantially redrawn and the senator no longer represents many of the voters who put him or her into office, or when the math requires a new district to be synchronized with the four-year cycle.

This time around, nine of the 19 senators on the ballot in 2012 will run for two-year terms, and the remaining 10 will run for four-year terms.

Egan, though getting to serve out the remainder of his four-year term, will also be on the ballot again in 2014, if he runs. His district includes almost 87 percent of the population it had in 2010, board attorney Michael White told members.

Districts for the remaining nine senators whose terms weren't supposed to be up until 2014 included at most 55 percent of their original populations, he said.

The new schedule creates a challenge for Stevens, the Senate president, and Cathy Giessel, a Republican from Anchorage. Each ran in 2010, must run again in 2012, and again in 2014. That's three elections in four years instead of the usual two.

The board had thought its deadline for approving a final plan was today, but didn't take into account the fact that May has 31 days. The deadline turned out to be Monday, though there will be a ceremonial event today, said board Chairman John Torgerson.

The board Monday unanimously signed an official proclamation of redistricting and approved maps and supporting documents.

Then, late in the afternoon, it went into a closed-door executive session to discuss potential litigation.

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

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