Fairbanks lawyer accuses board of 'racial gerrymandering'

Richard Mauer

Election results show that a new House district supposedly drawn to preserve Native voting power in the Interior was actually a gerrymander that shifted Democrats out of Fairbanks and diluted the Native vote, a complaint to the Alaska Supreme Court asserted Tuesday.

New House District 38, in which the Democrat-heavy areas of Goldstream and Ester were joined with villages on the Bering Sea coast, was won by Democrat David Guttenberg of Fairbanks.

But that victory may have come at the expense of the Senate bipartisan coalition, Fairbanks attorney Michael Walleri said in his motion to the Alaska Supreme Court.

The state's highest court is reviewing the 40 House and 20 Senate Districts drawn by the Alaska Redistricting Board earlier this year. The court allowed the August primary and November general elections to proceed but ruled the districts used were only interim.

Walleri, representing two residents from Goldstream and Ester, said that Native precincts came out strongly in favor of Guttenberg's opponent, Republican Alan Dick of Nenana. While white Republicans from places like Clear and Anderson appeared to have supported Dick, Walleri said, there were not enough of them to offset Guttenberg's advantage in liberal communities just west of Fairbanks that are largely Democratic.

The results show that the reason for drawing House District 38 -- affording Alaska Natives the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice -- was based on the false premise that Democratic voters would always be aligned with Native voters, Walleri said. Dick, who is white, is a former Bush village teacher who's married to a Native woman. He had the kind of support that U.S. Rep. Don Young has long enjoyed in the Bush, for similar reasons, Walleri said.

Guttenberg and Dick were incumbents forced to defend their seats against each other because the Alaska Redistricting Board put them in House District 38. Unofficial results showed Guttenberg won by 253 votes.

Walleri said the district should be fixed by putting Goldstream and Ester into neighboring Fairbanks districts and shifting more Republicans into 38. That could result in thousands more Democrats going into Senate District B, Walleri said, where Sen. Joe Paskvan, a Democrat, lost to former Republican Rep. Pete Kelly by an unofficial 924 votes.

Paskvan's loss doomed the Senate's bipartisan coalition, resulting in a new Republican-dominated majority caucus. Under the current redistricting plan, Kelly will have to defend his seat in 2014.

In his filing with the Supreme Court, Walleri said his evidence shows the 2012 redistricting plan "resulted in the destruction of the Senate bipartisan coalition, and the racial gerrymandering in HD 38 greatly contributed to achieving that result." Wallari is a Democrat who has represented Native groups in past redistricting battles in Alaska.

Redistricting Board chairman John Torgerson did not return messages left on his cell phone and at the board's office in Anchorage.

All states undergo redistricting every 10 years when U.S. Census data showing population shifts becomes available. Invariably, the process is controversial -- parties in power tend to draw districts that increase their numbers in legislatures and Congress.

In Alaska, the Redistricting Board, appointed in 2010 by the governor, the leaders of the House and Senate and the Supreme Court's chief justice, was 4-1 Republican.

The state constitution says all House districts should contain about the same population, be "contiguous and compact," and contain "a relatively integrated socio-economic area." It recommends local government boundaries and natural drainages be used for district borders.

The U.S. Voting Rights Act also plays a role, especially because Alaska is under Justice Department supervision over of a history of discrimination against Native voters. The act, now under challenge by Alaska and several Southern states, prohibits officials from diluting the votes of racial minorities in crafting district boundaries.

In first rejecting the Redistricting Board's work in March, the Supreme Court ruled the board improperly placed the federal law above the state constitution. It sent the districts back to the board, telling it to use the constitutional criteria first and then apply the federal law. The board came up with a slightly revised plan, but a Superior Court in Fairbanks said it failed to follow the Supreme Court's order. The board appealed to the Supreme Court, where the matter now sits.

Walleri said the board improperly applied "racial gerrymandering" to achieve political gerrymandering. He said he would like to see the Supreme Court send the case to Superior Court for a judge to appoint nonpartisan court masters to conclude redistricting rather than send it back to the board again. Under the Constitution, the board is only guaranteed one "re-do."

In Anchorage, redistricting also doomed Democratic Sen. Bettye Davis, the only African American in the Legislature. Portions of Mountain View and East Anchorage were stripped from her district; in their place, she got heavily Republican Eagle River. Rep. Anna Fairclough, who is white, won easily.

Wanda Greene, president of the Alaska NAACP, said she's concerned that the African American vote, concentrated in Davis' former district, was diluted by the new boundaries. She said she's exploring whether the NAACP can make a legal case.


Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.



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