The biggest political debate of the decade kicked off in earnest Wednesday as the Alaska Redistricting Board met in an all-day session to set in motion what promises to be a divisive process for redrawing the state's 40 legislative districts.
This year's redistricting effort is fraught with suspicion because the state board is heavily skewed toward Republicans. A number of Democrats testifying Wednesday made it clear that they don't trust the board to fairly adjust legislative boundaries based on population shifts and that Democrats could be significantly shortchanged.
About 20 people, most of them Democrats and many from Southeast Alaska and rural areas, offered comments, many that criticized the board from the start for making it difficult to call into the meeting or access material. They also questioned the openness and fairness of the process.
Board chairman John Torgerson was immediately put off and reacted somewhat angrily to one caller. "You realize we just got the census data yesterday and it was on the web in a couple of hours," he remarked, adding, "I'm not sure your comments are justified."
Fresh Census numbers stoke partisan passions
Several who commented questioned the board's process -- including the fact that public comment was taken at the beginning of the meeting before information was released or decisions had been made that they might have wanted to comment on. A few openly suspected that board members had been meeting privately with political operatives who were lobbying them on how to draw the boundaries.
Jake Metcalfe, a former Alaska Democratic Party chairman and Anchorage School Board member who chairs the party's redistricting committee, politely but bluntly asked if any board members had met with Randy Ruedrich, the chair of the Alaska Republican Party. Metcalfe cautioned against "back door politics" and urged the board to conduct all its business openly and publicly.
That drew another pointed response from Torgerson who said, "I've met with Ruedrich as much as I've met with you and that's zero."
Other board members also said that they had not met with the Republican Party chairman. Ruedrich wasn't at the meeting Wednesday but did testify by phone.
The partisan crossfire is nothing new in Alaska's redistricting effort. The stakes are huge -- literally political control of the state. Alaska is divided into 40 legislative districts with 40 representatives and 20 senators. Now, the Senate is split 10-10 between Republicans and Democrats, while the House has 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats. Democrats are worried that the redistricting board will finagle the new boundaries to force incumbent Democrats to run against each other or draw the boundaries so tightly around heavily Democratic areas that what's left are a few Democratic districts and lots of Republican strongholds.
New census data provided to the state this week puts Alaska's total population at 710,231, up from 626,920 in 2000. The board divides the total population by 40 legislative districts and bases the size of each on 17,755 residents. Numbers released by the board late Tuesday showed that while most areas of the state remained stable population-wise or even grew by a few hundred residents, the Matanuska Susitna Valley and Fairbanks gained thousands of new residents. So to keep the size of each district roughly even at 17,755 some districts, especially in Southeast Alaska and the rural Interior will need to be reconfigured probably significantly.
House District 40, the huge northern Alaska district that covers much of the top of the state, actually turned out to have held its own population-wise and did not come in significantly lower than the goal.
Ten years ago it was the Democrats, under then Gov. Tony Knowles, who were criticized for skewing the process. A 2006 review of that redistricting effort by Gordon Harrison, a longtime legislative director and academic who was the board's executive director, sets the stage for this year's political scrum as well. In 2001, the board "did not function as a bipartisan redistricting commission," he wrote in a piece for the Alaska Law Review. "There is no reason to expect it to do so in the future."
The current five-member redistricting board has four Republican members and one Democrat. And, if Harrison's analysis of what went wrong last time around is any guideline, the way the board members are chosen creates probably the biggest problem when it comes to partisan advantage.
Redistricting board last stacked by Democrats
In 1998, voters narrowly passed a constitutional amendment that created the board, which was thought to be independent in that it was not being overseen by the Legislature or the executive branch. The governor gets to name two members; the Senate President names one; the Speaker of the House names one and the Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court picks the fifth.
For the current board, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell chose John Torgerson of Soldotna, a former GOP senator, and Peggy Ann McConnochie, a Juneau real estate broker and member of the Capital City Republican Women. Republican Senate President Gary Stevens named Robert Brodie of Kodiak, also a real estate broker and head of the Kodiak Republican Party. Republican House Speaker Mike Chenault chose former Republican lawmaker Jim Holm of Fairbanks.
Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti picked Marie Greene, a Kotzebue resident who is president of NANA Regional Corp. and a Democratic supporter.
"That one party will have at least a three-member majority on the Board to give the nod to its side's proposal is virtually assured by the method of appointing Board members," Harrison wrote, adding "members are named by elected officials who have a vital in the outcome of the panel's work and they should not be expected to be impartial. Indeed, it is likely impossible to create a genuinely and reliably neutral commission to deal with redistricting issues."
Harrison noted that 10 years ago, the three-member majority that prevailed had been appointed by Knowles or Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe. The board ultimately adopted a redistricting plan drawn up by Alaskans For Fair Redistricting, a group that billed itself as non-partisan made up of Native leaders, unions and environmentalists. The Democratic Party was not formally affiliated with the group, but Harrison said the party's chair was instrumental in its founding. He also wrote that Knowles' staff was "deeply and openly involved" in AFFR's work and that the state Department of Law provided support for the group.
AFFR is involved in this year's effort as well, and had members present at the meeting Wednesday. The group's chair, AFL-CIO president Vince Beltrami, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday after the meeting.
But Vicki Otte, who was on the redistricting board 10 years ago and now is working with AFFR, said the group counts a lot of non-partisan and independent voters among its membership as well as both parties.
She said she is staunchly non-partisan and recently helped with Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in campaign. "I want to keep a fair and balanced Legislature," she said. "The fear today is with the makeup of the board. It's going to hurt us, it's going to hurt rural Alaska."
She dismissed Harrison's criticism of the 2001 process and pointed to the relatively balanced political distribution in the Legislature as evidence that the board did a good and fair job 10 years ago.
Ron Miller, the board's current executive director, also rejected the idea that the board would try to shape the boundaries to favor Republicans. In an interview earlier this week, he talked about the process as being driven by numbers and rules that the board must follow. In the end, the plan will likely end up in court -- as it has every year -- where judges will decide the ultimate boundaries.
"There's no one running the process except the board," Miller said regarding concerns that the Republican Party chairman, Randy Ruedrich, might be involved.
Don't forget that Alaska's full of Independents
Miller said the board plans to conduct an open and transparent process that will provide plenty of opportunity for the public to watch how the lines are drawn. Now that the census numbers are in, the board has 30 days -- until 9:45 a.m. April 14, they figured -- to adopt a preliminary plan. Then the board has another 60 days to gather public comment and adopt a final plan.
The board set a fairly packed meeting schedule including taking public testimony in at least five cities during the next couple weeks.
At an earlier meeting, they agreed to pay themselves $400 a day for the days they are in session. Torgerson said Wednesday the board's overall budget is about $3.2 million, compared to about $5 million for the 2001 process.
The board spent much of Wednesday afternoon discussing and setting the meeting schedule. But it also took up a request by Ruedrich to reallocate the prison population to their residence addresses. Now inmates are counted in the district in which they are incarcerated.
Ruedrich told the board there is a disproportionate number of Alaska Native prisoners in the system -- 35 percent compared to a Native population generally of 15 percent. He suggested many of those people are from rural Alaska so counting them in their home towns and villages would help fill out lagging numbers in rural districts.
The board didn’t act on the request and said it would be too difficult in such a short time to get the residence addresses for thousands of inmates and try to work them into the appropriate district. The board's attorney, Michael White, also wondered whether it was legal for the board to do it or if a change had to come through the Legislature.
The board also discussed at some length what to do about senate seats that are not up for reelection in 2012, when the new boundaries take effect. Half the Senate is not up again until 2014 -- 10 districts -- and board members are considering whether it's fair to what might be thousands of new voters in a revamped district to let those senators stay without a new vote. In 2002, seven senate terms were "truncated" and those members had to run again, White said.
Board member Bob Brodie suggested truncating them all because he expects every district will be substantially changed.
Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com