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Election, redistricting diminishes Natives' power in Alaska Legislature

Pat Forgey

Two Alaska Native legislators were at the peak of power during the last legislative session in Juneau.

Even though they weren't serving as Senate President or House Speaker, they held two of the four Finance Committee co-chair positions. Those are the less visible but perhaps more powerful positions where spending decisions on operating and capital budgets are made. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, held one of those positions in the Senate, while Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, held a similar spot in the House.

It will be much different in the upcoming session.

Following election defeats and a shift of power to urban legislators, a shrinking Alaska Native delegation will largely be on the outside looking in to when decisions are made.

'Awfully white'

“You have a legislature that's turning awfully white,” said Albert Kookesh, co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives. “What you are ending up with is something that's not very diverse in terms of opinion.”

Kookesh, also a state senator from Angoon, lost his re-election bid following redistricting. So did Thomas, who narrowly lost to newcomer Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. That leaves the Legislature with just five Native members, Sens. Hoffman and Donny Olson, D-Golovin, and Reps. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, Neal Foster, D-Nome and Benjamin Nageak, D-Barrow.

There is one Asian legislator, Japanese-American Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks. Kookesh pointed to the defeat of Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, the Legislature's only African-American, as further evidence of the lawmaking body becoming less diverse.

The result: A state that is 67 percent white is governed by a legislature that is 90 percent white.

According to the latest U.S. Census, 3.3 percent of Alaska's population is African-American, with 5.5 percent Hispanic or Latino and 1 percent Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders. Alaska Natives make up the remainder.

Kookesh blames redistricting

The change arrives following the decennial redistricting process following the U.S. Census -- and comes despite requirements that the voting strength of minorities such as Alaska Natives be maintained.

Kookesh said the goal of the redistricting was to attack the Republican-led, Democratic-majority coalition that's controlled the Senate for several years by giving coalition members difficult-to-win districts. “It worked exactly the way the majority party in Alaska wanted it to, with the end result being you lost the coalition,” he said.

The redistricting process in Alaska was run by the Alaska Redistricting Board, with oversight by the Alaska courts and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Redistricting Board Chair John Torgerson, a Republican and former state senator from the Kenai Peninsula, denied that redistricting was the reason for reduced minority power in the Legislature. The board, he said, worked hard to comply with legal requirements that it maintain Native voting strength and districts.

“The redistricting board had nothing to do with who filed for office, what kind of candidates they'd make, or any of that kind of business,” he said.

While not all of the Native-majority or Native-influenced districts actually elected Natives legislators, they all have the legislators they prefer, Torgerson said.

Impact of Voting Rights Act

Alaska is one of the few states outside of the Deep South that is covered by the Voting Rights Act due to a history of denying minority voting rights. That means the state is covered by the Voting Rights Act's requirements for federal supervision of state elections, and means the board's new election maps had to receive “pre-clearance” from the feds before they could be used in the 2012 elections.

That pre-clearance process was intended to make sure there wouldn't be a decrease in Native voting clout. Kookesh said it failed. “I was really disappointed in the Department of Justice,” he said. “They should have seen this coming.”

The redistricting process is not yet complete and is still facing a state court review that could lead to new district boundaries for 2014, which could require new federal review as well.

Torgerson said those court cases limited what he could say about the process. 

Alaska is one of the states that uses a partisan redistricting process, with four of the five members of the board drawing new maps appointed by the governor, the Senate president and House speaker. Each of those Republican men appointed fellow Republicans to the board. The fifth board member was appointed by state's chief justice, who appointed an Independent.

Kookesh said he remembers a time when there were nine Native legislators, or 15 percent of the total.

Two Native legislators do sit as individual members of Finance committees. In both the House and Senate, Democratic Native legislators have joined strong Republican majorities as the caucuses organized, hoping to increase their influence.

Redistricting isn't the sole cause of fewer Natives in positions of power, Kookesh acknowledged. A big problem is the movement of Natives and others from rural communities to the larger urban areas where their voices are diluted and rural issues get overlooked.

An attempt by rural legislators to alleviate that by expanding the Legislature was voted down by the public last year. That measure might have meant that there would be additional Native legislators, even if each seat they held would have had slightly less power.

Pat Forgey is a freelance journalist who lives in Juneau.