The dust hasn’t yet settled from the Nov. 8 election, but enough results are decided that the shape of the incoming Alaska Legislature is now pretty clear. And the result, judging only by the seats won by each party (or, in the case of independents, which party they’re likely to find common cause with), isn’t too different from the past several years: a closely divided House and Senate that will likely result in some sort of bipartisan majority coalition.
In Legislatures past, such divisions have stymied progress, with legislative leaders opting to kick the can down the road rather than tackle the tough problems that could fracture their fragile caucus.
But there’s reason to hope this group could be different. And it’s up to them to show us they can be.
Unlike most elections, this year 59 of Alaska’s 60 legislative seats were up for grabs thanks to new district maps that changed the areas legislators represent. And, although many incumbents kept their seats, there will also be a larger-than-usual new crop of legislators setting up their offices in the Capitol in Juneau. The new legislators will have a learning curve, certainly, but they’re also likely to have different ideas (and maybe more optimism) about progress being possible despite major differences in priorities and legislative philosophy.
One common thread among several of the likely new first-term legislators is their relative youth. From C.J. McCormick in Bethel to Löki Gale Tobin and Genevieve Mina in Anchorage and Jesse Bjorkman in Nikiski, legislators in their 20s and 30s will be taking over from officeholders who were in some cases a generation older. And, while some would say that makes them more likely to suffer from inexperience, there’s great value in not having decades of scores to settle or preconceptions about how things have to get done. For years, they’ve watched the stalemate in the Legislature with the same frustration as the rest of us (in some cases, from inside the building); now they’ll have a chance to be part of the solution.
The impact of ranked choice voting
The new legislators aren’t alone: The majority of Alaskans, who exist in the relative middle of the political spectrum, have been frustrated with the legislative process being held captive by those who would rather stall all progress than see their ideological opponents get a win. That’s how Alaska’s new ranked choice voting and open primary system passed in 2020, and it’s already having an impact on the makeup of the Legislature.
Although races have yet to be officially decided, open primaries have done away with the issue of moderates getting torpedoed by hardline party supporters before the general election ballot. Already, those in the Legislature who are consensus builders willing to work across partisan lines are benefiting. Kelly Merrick, running for Senate in former Sen. Lora Reinbold’s district, is prevailing by a wide margin despite having been censured by the Alaska GOP for joining up with the bipartisan House majority caucus last year. Likewise, on the Kenai Peninsula, Bjorkman looks likely to prevail over Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s divisive former chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock. Moderates aren’t winning everywhere, of course, but the new election system has given them a path to the general election that was formerly controlled by party insiders — and we all stand to benefit.
Time to do the work
Ultimately, we’ll find out if the new Legislature can get its act together better than the last group did quickly, as new legislators meet to hammer out caucus membership and committee roles. If the House and Senate can take care of that business between now and mid-January, they’ll be able to hit the ground running when the session starts — and maybe channel that momentum into progress on other fronts, such as a longer-term fiscal plan or a way to address the needs of school districts facing post-COVID-19 budget deficits across the state. It’s up to them to show Alaskans that they can do the job we’re sending them to Juneau to accomplish, and the work starts now.