Alaska Legislature

The Freshmen 15: Alaska's new crop of state lawmakers in their own words, and pictures

The Alaska Capitol is organized around experience and seniority. But seniority doesn't mean anything without people at the bottom of the pile.

This year's freshman class in Juneau is an unusually large one, with a dozen new House members and three new senators — not including Palmer Republican Shelley Hughes, a House member last year who graduated to the Senate in November's election.

The freshmen occupy the Capitol's smallest offices and rarely fill leadership posts or seats on key committees, which means they're often out of the public eye. We set out to capture the faces of this year's new crop of legislators, as well as a few words from each one.

The interviews have been edited and condensed. And many of the questions have been expanded from their original form to ensure the context is clear.

Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage

ADN: You're one of the Legislature's most avid users of social media. What's your favorite personal post of the year so far?

JG: I just dropped a Seinfeld reference today. Someone asked me if I was doing a Costanza frown. And I quoted back: 'This bill was angry this day, my friends. Like an old man sending soup back to a deli.'


ADN: You're on the House Finance Committee, which meets for long hours. Do your kids hate the co-chairs, Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton and Nome Democratic Rep. Neal Foster, for taking up your Saturdays?

JG: They hate somebody. They don't know who. But Saturdays and not being able to put them to bed at night. Even today, Atticus asked me, 'Are you going to be home to put me to bed?' They know somebody's taking up daddy's time, that's for sure.

ADN: You used to run the Pick.Click.Give. program. Did you Pick.Click.Give. this year?

JG: I Pick.Click.Give. to four charities this year, which is the most I've ever given to. It was Anchorage Concert Association, Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, KNBA and New Hope on the Last Frontier, which is a downtown food bank. $50 apiece.

Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue

ADN: How many times have you reminded people that Alaska's oil and minerals come from your district?

DW: I don't think I could remind them enough. If I had to guess, I'd say at least 10 times.

ADN: You were declared the winner of your primary in a ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court. Did you send a thank-you card?

DW: No, I did not. I really should have, I suppose. Good manners would dictate it. I'll say it now: Thank you very much, Supreme Court.

ADN: Is there a professional benefit to your smoking habit because you can bond with the smokers in the House Republican minority — like former speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks?

DW: The R.J. Reynolds caucus? There is. They guide me along, regardless of party affiliation or anything. These guys want what's the best for Alaska and don't mind telling me, even though we have a difference in ideology a lot of times.

ADN: Have you ever bummed a cigarette off Chenault?

DW: No. We haven't bummed from each other. You know, the thing with the R.J. Reynolds caucus is we've got enough to go around.

Gary Knopp, R-Kenai

ADN: You own a construction company. What's your favorite piece of construction equipment to drive?

GK: Favorite piece, huh? I think probably the excavators. I mean, it's kind of a toss-up, you know? I like to get in all of them, but you don't want to spend too much time in any of them. I love to be in the road grader, but after eight hours of that, that's plenty long for me. The dozers, you know, at times they're fun for a few hours. That might be why I like the dirt business, because I get the chance to just jump in and out.

ADN: You served on the Kenai Borough Assembly, where there's been a huge debate spurred by an invocation delivered by a member of the Satanic Temple. Would you support a satanic invocation at the Alaska Legislature?


GK: No way. No way. Plain no.

ADN: When was the last time you were confused with Chuck Kopp?

GK: Oh, I think it was yesterday morning, wasn't it? We had a guy in here who thought he was walking into Chuck Kopp's office. It's a three-, four-time-a-week event.

Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage

ADN: When is the last time you were mistaken for Gary Knopp?

CK: At the gym. At the Alaska Club gym I had a guy last week — he is an employee of health and social services — I'll just leave it at that. He says, 'Is Gary Knopp your dad?' I laughed, and I told Gary that, and Gary laughed hard, too, and then he kind of got a serious look on his face and says, 'Do I look that old?' I said, 'No, Gary, you look great.'

ADN: You were a legislative staffer before you were elected. What's the best thing about not being a staffer any more?

CK: For me, engaging on a deeper level with every issue from the perspective of being a colleague with other legislators. You will definitely hear more of their deepest thoughts, greatest concerns and their deepest desires that normally they wouldn't share with you as a staffer. And I have appreciated that.


ADN: What's the worst thing about not being a staffer any more?

CK: The worst thing about not being a staffer is when your friends — I have a hundred of them in this building — get tongue-tied in the hallway between Rep. Kopp or Chuck. And I always assure them that no matter what they say, it's right, it's fine. The decorum is so important, but I can't tell you how awkward it makes me feel.

Tom Begich, D-Anchorage

ADN: You're a musician. So if you were to write a song about this session so far, what would it be called?

TB: 'Oh, the Possibilities.'

ADN: Why?

TB: Because, oh, the possibilities. Because I think that fundamentally, folks for the most part do believe in the future of the state. I think they're going to come together in the end. It may take a while.

ADN: When you hear someone say Sen. Begich, do you still turn around and look for your brother Mark, the former U.S. senator?

TB: No, I never have. I just turn around and tell people the first name's Tom.

ADN: Why shouldn't you and Mark run for governor on a Begich-Begich ticket?

TB: Because I don't think he'd like being lieutenant governor.

Justin Parish, D-Juneau


ADN: How long have you been growing your beard?

JP: When did I last shave my beard? Let's see. More than a year ago.

ADN: Has the notoriously foul-mouthed Juneau Democratic Sen. Dennis Egan sworn at you yet?

JP: Um. No comment.

ADN: What was the last item you won at a charity auction?

JP: I remember I got a bag with two Uber cards. Gave the bag away. And I got a sleeping bag and camping stove and I gave the sleeping bag away.


George Rauscher, R-Sutton

ADN: Your House District 9 is massive — it runs from Delta to Valdez. So, what's the hottest issue in Valdez right now?

GR: There's not an actual hot issue in Valdez. There are a lot of people anticipating expansion of the museum. There's talking about a bike path that will go 14 miles out of town. People are talking about some of the projects that are coming to an end, like the dock, and some of the ones that are on the horizon.

ADN: Do you know how many miles you put on your car during the campaign?

GR: Oh yeah, yeah. I put almost 7,000 miles in the last campaign on my car. It's a Jeep — it's still sitting outside, too.

ADN: So the drive to Juneau must have been nothing.

GR: That was nothing. They put it on a boat.

ADN: You beat the incumbent in your primary with a lot of help from the Alaska Republican Party. Does Tuckerman Babcock, the chairman, tell you what to do now?

GR: I think about two weeks after the election was the last time I talked to Tuckerman Babcock. And that's a fact — I'll give you my cellphone and you can look. I'm not avoiding him. I just haven't had reason to call him.

Zach Fansler, D-Bethel

ADN: One of your jobs before working in the Legislature was managing the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race. How does that compare to this job?

ZF: It was a first-rate crash course in crisis management. Anything that could go wrong will go wrong, whether it's weather or planes not flying or people not being able to get out or whatever. And so you make Plan A, B and C and then you end up going with that. So in that way it's kind of just like this. We always have things changing on the fly.

ADN: How much Yup'ik can you speak?

ZF: Catchphrases. I can say 'quyana,' obviously, that's 'thank you.' I can say 'piura,' that's 'goodbye,' that's like the less formal 'waqaa.' 'Quyana tailuci,' which means 'thank you for coming.' I'm working hard at it. It's difficult because it's not quite as Westernized. It's very guttural, so the pronunciation is what I have a big problem with. And so that leads to endless comedy.

ADN: I heard a story involving akutaq — the mixture of berries and fat known as Eskimo ice cream — on the campaign trail.

ZF: The one day in Toksook Bay I think I had like eight different versions of akutaq. It was a fun time.

Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla

ADN: What's the best advice you've gotten from Lynn Gattis, who you replaced in the House?

CSL: You know, probably just to work very hard. Study all the issues very well and just be kind. Be kind to everyone.

ADN: What do you miss about Wasilla City Council?

CSL: I most definitely miss my colleagues. The council members there, they're my neighbors, they're my friends. I miss the local government aspect of being closest to the people. Here in Juneau, you're kind of in this bubble, so you're pulled away from your constituency.

ADN: Do you and David Wilson — another former Wasilla City Council member who was just elected to the state Senate — have a secret handshake?

CSL: No. Did he say we do? Boy, did I mess up? No secret handshake. Maybe I should develop one.

ADN: Former Anchorage mayor Dan Sullivan is your brother. What's your favorite story about him?

CSL: Oh, him? Let me think. We had the anniversary of the 1964 earthquake this week. I was 4 years old and at the time our house was hit hard in downtown Anchorage. And I remember my mother yelling at the older kids, which was my brother Danny, and he grabbed on to me and did not let go until the earthquake stopped. And I just will never forget his arms around me, just, you know, trying to hang on for dear life.

David Wilson, R-Wasilla

ADN: So you're the only person out all these folks who doesn't want to do this. Are you sure you can't give me three minutes for an interview?

DW: Nope, nope. Don't want to do it.

ADN: Why not?

DW: I don't do that to anybody. I don't talk to press for anything. Any subject. Anything.

ADN: Why not?

DW: It changes things. It changes perspectives. It changes the meaning.

ADN: So you're not willing to tell me, like, when was the last time you signed something with a smiley face? (Wilson signed official documents with a smiley face when he was on the Wasilla City Council.)

DW: I don't know. Monday?

Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage

ADN: You're the only freshman on the Senate Finance Committee. What is your favorite state agency budget?

NVI: They're all interesting. They all have their own unique story. They're all a puzzle to discover and unravel.

ADN: What was the last time you thought about Jeff Landfield, who ran a colorful campaign against you in the Republican primary?

NVI: I don't.

ADN: I know you love spreadsheets. What's the last one you opened?

NVI: Pick one. (Gesturing.) This one was this morning — these are all the bills. These are all the agency budgets that you asked about. I put my grocery list on a spreadsheet. I put my Christmas list on a spreadsheet. Here's the House, the Senate, the governor's budgets all compared. I look at spreadsheets all day long because they tell you a story and they're a starting place to point you in the direction to start exploring.

Chris Birch, R-Anchorage

ADN: What is your second-favorite kind of tree, assuming birch is the first?

CB: I think Japanese white birch tops the list. But silver birch I'd say was my second-favorite. I'm solid with birch — we have roots in Alaska. We don't plan to leaf. We're branching out wherever we can.

ADN: What is your favorite natural resource to extract?

CB: You know, I started out life as a gold miner. So I would say my favorite natural resource is probably Alaska gold.

ADN: You went from being on the minority in the Anchorage Assembly to the minority in the Alaska Legislature. Why bother?

CB: Hey, we love contributing and making Alaska a better place.

Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage

ADN: You and Chris Birch were on the Anchorage Assembly together for years. Now you are both freshmen in the state House. Have you asked him to stop following you around?

JJ: Well, I don't know who's following who. Because, you know, he was on the Assembly before I was. Also, he filed (for the House) before I did. So, I would really be the bad person here.

ADN: What's the last hike you went on?

JJ: I walk every day, back and forth.

ADN: Where's your house?

JJ: It's on Douglas. It only takes me 40 minutes. I can make it more — I can go around by the flume. But, it's what keeps me whole.

ADN: As an Assembly member, you were often in Juneau talking about the state retirement system. What's the last argument you've had about pensions?

JJ: I've taken opportunities to enlighten people. I haven't had an argument yet because it hasn't come up yet. But I'm ready.

DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer

ADN: You grew up in Talkeetna. What is your opinion of Stubbs, the cat mayor?

DL: The cat mayor? I think the cat mayor's great. I think the cat mayor knows how to keep their mouth shut. Doesn't comment a lot unnecessarily. And, you know, everyone seems to love him. How much better can a mayor be?

ADN: You are the landlord to the Palmer City Alehouse. How is an alehouse as a tenant?

DL: An alehouse is great as a tenant. Because they pay the bills, and the building gets a lot of use and people seem to enjoy themselves there.

ADN: How does Juneau compare to the Valley?

DL: I don't know what it's like in Juneau. I never get out of the Capitol. So, it looks beautiful from my window.

David Eastman, R-Wasilla

ADN: What do you do for fun?

DE: Let's see. Fun, during the legislative session. I enjoy being back home.

ADN: Do you have any hobbies?

DE: Occasionally, I do. I enjoy fishing. It's been a little while.

ADN: You often seem to be in a hurry. Is that the case?

DE: I think it is, most of the time. There's never enough time to get any of it all done. It's actually not for show, by the way.

ADN: Do you ever dream about budget cuts?

DE: I have not ever had a dream about budget cuts, I'm glad to say. I'm not saying it couldn't happen — I've just never had an actual dream. Sorry, no interesting dreams, not too much time for hobbies. But you can add hiking to the list — we have been out hiking recently.

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at