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Alaska redistricting forces many new races in 2012

Patti Epler

The Alaska Redistricting Board has wrapped up work on a new political map for Alaska, divvying up political turf in a way that likely will now head to court as political interests fight for every possible advantage.

As the map stands now, legislative district boundaries were redrawn so substantially that, with one exception, every senator elected to a four-year term just last year will have to run again next year. Only Sen. Dennis Egan, a Juneau Democrat, will avoid an earlier-than-expected campaign.

In 2012 -- a big year for politics as President Obama seeks reelection and Republicans, including perhaps former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, fight to knock him off -- 59 of Alaska's 60 legislators could be running for office, if the board's final plan survives a court challenge. That means they'll all be competing for campaign donations, staff members and volunteers.

Alaska Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich says that in 2002 -- the last election year after a redistricting effort -- 17 of the state's 20 senators were forced to run early. All 40 House members run every two years, but they will face substantially new districts too and will need to convince new constituents of their value. Ruedrich also expects more contested primaries as potential candidates see an opportunity to go against entrenched incumbents. Most of the legislative races in the 2010 primary were uncontested and only a handful of general election contests were considered something to watch.

"There was significant turnover in the Legislature in 1992 and in 2002 and we'll probably have significant turnover in 2012," he says.

Legal challenges to the plan have to be filed within 30 days, and a number of groups from political parties to unions to Alaska Native corporations to local communities have been closely following the process with an eye toward possible legal action.

Vince Beltrami, co-chair of the Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, a coalition of unions and Native groups, says his members will meet next week to decide what to do. "We have concerns certainly," he says. "But right now the jury's out on what we're going to do."

Beltrami thinks there's plenty of evidence that the primarily Republican board tilted the districts to favor Republicans. Two Democratic senators in Fairbanks will have to run against each other. In Anchorage, Sen. Bettye Davis, the only African American lawmaker, has seen her district shift substantially into Eagle River, which is considered a more conservative GOP stronghold.

 "The reality is you just didn’t have to do what they did in the drawing of their map," Beltrami says. 

The plan now has to go to the U.S. Justice Department for review, which will make sure Native voters have not lost political ground. Board executive director Taylor Bickford says the board will wait to see what sort of legal challenges are filed before submitting to Justice, which then has 60 days to approve it or reject it.

As it stands now, the following senators who just campaigned in 2010 will be hitting the trail again in 2012, if they decide to run and if the plan holds:

Fairbanks Sen. Joe Thomas

A Democrat, Thomas' territory was shifted southward into what has been the downtown district of Sen. Joe Paskvan, another Democrat, pitting the two of them against each other.

Fairbanks Sen. John Coghill

A Republican, Coghill's district used to stretch from North Pole to Valdez, Delta Junction and Chickaloon. Now his district would readjust to stick closer to the urban area and take in the nearby military bases.

Mat-Su Sen. Charlie Huggins

A Republican whose district used to include the rural Valley area, Huggins would find himself in Wasilla and more of the urban areas of the fast-growing Valley.

Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski

A Democrat who was known as the senator from Muldoon, Wielechowski's district will now take in the military bases, which are considered more conservative voters.

Anchorage Sen. Johnny Ellis

A Democrat who long represented downtown Anchorage, Ellis would pick up a substantial number of new voters in Mountain View and Airport Heights.

Anchorage Sen. Lesil McGuire

A Republican who represents Sand Lake and the Klatt/Oceanview area, she will see her district shift north to take in part of Midtown Anchorage.

Anchorage Sen. Cathy Giessel

A Republican whose district stretched from Eagle River along the eastern edge of the city and into the Hillside, her district will now stretch the other way, including the Hillside, Girdwood, Hope and down to Seward.

Kodiak Sen. Gary Stevens

A Republican, he will see his district sweep to the west to take in Bristol Bay and Dillingham, while giving up Homer and Seward.

Nome Sen. Donny Olson

A Democrat, Olson's district will expand to take in areas to the south including Tok and McCarty.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.