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Why are Alaska Democrats leaving the party in ‘droves?’

Amanda Coyne
Aaron Jansen illustration

Much has been made of the various and sundry rifts within the Alaska Republican Party, and for good reason. Infighting abounds, particularly since the Ron Paulites have been able to grow strength in numbers by joining with the tea party to elect their guy as chair of the Alaska Republican Party.

Less hay has been made of splits among Democrats, who seem to have less intraparty fighting, and aren’t showing up, say, at their party’s state convention to, say, boo any U.S. senators from their party.

That doesn’t mean that divisions don’t exist within the Democratic Party. Abortion, for one, has effectively driven a wedge between minority groups and the pro-choice Democratic faction. However, Democrats seem more polite about expressing those divisions. Nor does it mean that they have been a particularly effective party in Alaska, if you consider the number of people in a party a sign of its effectiveness.  

The party’s numbers have been dropping since the 1960s, when the party was dominant in Alaska.

Consider this: There are roughly 4,000 fewer registered Democrats today than in 1998. In that same period, the Republicans were able to add more than 22,000 people to their rolls.

Accounting for population increases, Democrats are down 14 percent since 1998 and Republicans are up 27 percent.

To be sure, there are more undeclared Alaska voters than those in either party. But those numbers have decreased also. As Bill Parker, former Democratic state lawmaker and deputy commissioner of corrections put it, “They’re leaving (the party) in droves.”

There are as many reasons for that as different types of Democrats. Some say that Alaska is simply following a national trend. “It's part of the Zeitgeist,” Parker said. Others point to party dysfunction. And others say that party has gotten insular, and has failed to reach out particularly to the minorities, who were once their most loyal constituents.

Tammy Townsend arrived in Alaska in 1961 as a showgirl. She stayed, and decided she was more interested in political activism than in working in clubs. She became the president of the National Council of Negro Women Inc., worked as an aide to former Democrat state Rep. Pat Parnell, Gov. Sean Parnell’s father. In the 1990s, she ran for state House, and for the Anchorage Assembly, and she worked hard for the party.

In return, however, she felt all but abandoned by the party. And things have gotten worse since she was involved, she said.

Cal Williams (who is this reporter’s neighbor) is running for state House against Geran Tarr, who is a former staffer for state Sen. Johnny Ellis. Williams has been working as a community organizer for decades. He can tell you stories about running up against what he calls the “party elite” and the party’s lack of sensitivity to minority voters, particularly pro-life minority voters like himself.

And it won’t likely help Alaska Democrats court the minority vote that former state Democratic lawmaker, Harry Crawford, is running against Democrat Sen. Bettye Davis, the first black woman elected to state office in Alaska.

There are of course, other reasons why people have left the party. One former Democrat, John Aronno who is still “tethered” to many Democratic causes, dropped out of the party because he feels like Alaska Democrats have fallen into the insidious trap of fighting the party on the other side’s terms. Among Democrats, he said, “there’s a real tendency to not campaign with confidence and run on your record. They seem to be more concerned with ticking off fewer Republicans than speaking to a more populist audience,” he said.

Historian Stephen Haycox pointed to the obvious. “The Democrats' problem in Alaska is that they are in an oil state and the oil industry is very good at generating job insecurity,” he said.

One thing is for sure: Feb. 5th, 2008, was a heady day for current and prospective Alaska Democrats. They trudged through snow and through sub-zero temperatures all across the state to gather in schools and community houses to caucus for President Obama. And because they had to register as Democrats to do so, Democrats signed up as many as 2,500 people that very day.

By the time the general election in November 2008 rolled around, there were about 10,000 more Democrats registered than the year before.

Since then, the party has lost about 5,000 of those Democrats, who either moved away or switched parties.

Current chair of the Alaska Democratic Party Don Gray defended the party, saying it's a big tent. "We should and will appeal to the broader, multi-colored landscape that is Alaska," he said. Besides, he said that it's more important whom you vote for than what party you belong to, and he believes that Democrats will do well in the upcoming state elections. 

However, Townsend said, “In other places someone is usually assigned to grassroots. That's not happening here. Someone’s got to knock on doors to get people out.”

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda@alaskadispatch.com