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Crowd of independent Alaska legislative candidates seeks to break through gridlock in Juneau

The Alaska House chamber at the Capitol building in Juneau. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

For people who wondered if the 2014 election of Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, was a fluke, Thursday's filing deadline for legislative candidates suggests something different — that it may have been the start of a trend.

More than a dozen people filed to run as independents in this year's election — twice the number who ran for the Legislature two years ago.

The group includes North Pole veterinarian Jeanne Olson, retired Anchorage School District technology supervisor Joe Hackenmueller, and Duncan Fields, Kodiak's former Republican district chairman, whose campaign treasurer is an officer with the local Democratic party.

In interviews, several of the independent candidates said they aim to break through what they described as partisan gridlock in Juneau — following in the footsteps of Walker, who beat incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell in 2014 with support from the Alaska Democratic Party.

"I just think there's enough people that are really disgusted and disappointed in the parties. That's what I'm counting on," said Olson, 60, who is running in House District 3, containing North Pole, against incumbent Republican Tammie Wilson and Democrat Christina Sinclair.

More than half the state's registered voters don't belong to a party, and several of the independent candidates are expected to mount aggressive campaigns.

But they also face substantial obstacles. The independents will lack party infrastructure and expertise to support their bids; they won't be able to build name recognition and hone their battle skills in the August primary election.

Just one of the six independent candidates in 2014, Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz, was ultimately elected.

"You don't have the money, you don't have the logistics, you don't have a lot of information," said Warren Keogh, a former Mat-Su Borough Assembly member who was trounced in his 2014 independent bid for state Senate by the Republican incumbent, Mike Dunleavy.

In short, Keogh said, "It sucked."

In interviews, many of the independent candidates downplayed the difficulty of running without party support, saying that technological advances would help them make up some of the gap.

As for their motivations, several blamed partisanship for the impasse in this year's legislative session, in which lawmakers took more than a month of extra work to pass a budget and have still failed to pass the major planks in Gov. Bill Walker's deficit-reduction package — or produce one of their own.

The independent candidates also cited their frustration with national politics and this year's presidential race.

"I still have a lot of conservative values," said Jason Grenn, a registered Republican who's quitting his job at the Alaska Community Foundation to run as an independent in House District 22, in South Anchorage, a seat now held by Republican Liz Vazquez. "But every day of watching the national presidential campaign and watching how some Republicans represent the party in Juneau, I kind of scratch my head."

Not new in Alaska

Third-party and independent candidacies are not a new phenomenon in Alaska politics. In 1990, Wally Hickel, a long-time Republican, won a gubernatorial race as an Alaskan Independence Party candidate.

More recently, Ortiz, a retired Ketchikan teacher, ran as an independent candidate and narrowly beat Republican Chere Klein to win a state legislative seat in 2014.

That was the same year that Walker, a lifelong Republican running as an independent, joined with Byron Mallott, the Democrats' candidate for governor.

The two agreed to unify their campaigns, with Mallott running for lieutenant governor and Walker renouncing his Republican registration to allow the Alaska Democratic Party to support him.

One of the architects of that merger was Vince Beltrami, the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the state's largest organized labor group.

On Tuesday, Beltrami filed to run for an Anchorage state Senate seat as an independent, saying he plans to offer "bold leadership" instead of "blind partisanship" in his race against incumbent Republican Cathy Giessel.

Beltrami was a lifelong Democrat until changing his registration to undeclared in 2014, and has pledged that his campaign will be distinct from the AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Republican and Democratic politicians but typically supports left-leaning candidates.

"I think as the campaign goes on, people will understand that I'm not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes — that I am a truly independent candidate," Beltrami said in a phone interview.

Beltrami's assurances, however, haven't headed off attacks from the Alaska Republican Party, which quickly denounced his candidacy as a "union boss bid for power."

"Beltrami can't even tell the truth about who he is," the party's chairman, Tuckerman Babcock, was quoted as saying in a prepared statement. "A longtime union boss, a lifelong supporter of Democrats, the big boss files for a Senate seat as a unaffiliated candidate. Really?"

Alaska Democrats have largely embraced independent candidates, going so far as to file an unsuccessful lawsuit in February that asked the state to allow independents to run in Democratic primaries — which would have allowed them to win the party's endorsement.

But so far, Alaska Republicans have kept independent candidates at arm's length, and not just Beltrami.

Hackenmueller, who's running for an Eagle River House seat against incumbent Republican Lora Reinbold, said that the Democratic Party was willing to sell him access to its voter database, while Republicans turned him away.

"If you're not a Republican, they're not talking to you, basically," Hackenmueller said.

Babcock, the Republican party chairman, said he thought that most of the independent candidates are "just Democrats who don't think that being a Democrat would be helpful in their districts."

"Most of the people who put down 'unaffiliated' are simply trying to pull one over on the voters and make it appear that they're somehow neutral," Babcock said in a phone interview. "Regardless of whether they want to run under a party banner or under a so-called unaffiliated banner, there are only two teams."

Babcock pointed to Ortiz, the Ketchikan representative, as an example.

Ortiz was an independent when he filed to run for office but he joined the Democratic minority caucus in the House after winning his race— and the minority promptly rebranded itself as the Independent Democratic Coalition.

Ortiz, in a phone interview, said he only joined the minority because he was never given the chance to join the Republican-led majority, and pointed to votes in which he sided against most of his own minority caucus on the state budget and on criminal justice reform.

Hackenmueller, meanwhile, said that if elected, he would likely caucus with the Democrats.

But that wasn't the case for many of the other independent candidates.

Fields, the former Republican from Kodiak, was at fish camp and couldn't be reached for comment. But Stosh Anderson, his campaign treasurer, said Fields would like to be part of a bipartisan coalition in the House.

Beltrami wouldn't commit to joining any caucus, saying instead that he would wait until after the election to make up his mind.

"When everybody sees the results, then the conversations will be happening," he said. "It just depends on who gets elected."

'Party rules'

Several of the independent candidates said that their refusal to join a party or organized group of lawmakers would give them more freedom to vote their conscience rather than being forced to vote along caucus lines.

"The bottom line is, I don't want to play by the party rules," said Olson, the North Pole veterinarian, pointing to cases where lawmakers were "ostracized" for breaking with the majority.

One example of that is Reinbold, the Eagle River incumbent being challenged by Hackenmueller.

Reinbold was ejected from the Republican-led House majority last year for voting against the budget — a violation of one of the majority's rules.

But Reinbold is the only lawmaker to run afoul of those rules in the last two legislative sessions. The extent of the partisan rules is limited, with members only bound to vote along their caucus lines on the budget and on procedural votes, said Larry Persily, a former deputy revenue commissioner and legislative observer who now advises the Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor.

Partisanship, Persily said, is a "politically convenient tag" to apply to the gridlock in Juneau. But the current impasse there can't be attributed solely to fights between Republicans and Democrats, he added.

One of the biggest legislative fights this year has been over House Bill 247, Walker's oil-tax reform bill. And the bill only got through the House last month after Wilson, the incumbent North Pole Republican and one of the House's most conservative members, helped spearhead a bipartisan compromise that passed with 25 votes — 13 from Republican-led majority members and 12 from Democratic minority members.

The crowd of independents, Persily said, can be attributed to "not so much partisan as it is philosophical gridlock, and 'Can I skip the primary and, gee, this kind of worked for Walker.'"

"It becomes convenience too," Persily said.

Then, there's Zach Fansler — a math professor, former race manager of the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race, and city council member in the Southwest Alaska hub community of Bethel.

He's challenging Bethel Democratic incumbent Rep. Bob Herron.

Fansler was registered as undeclared for years until Wednesday, when he switched his party affiliation to Democratic to run for the House.

"The majority of the time, I'm probably lining up my thoughts on Democratic values," Fansler said. "We usually lean pretty Democratic here and I felt like it was a good idea to take that route."

Fansler's beef with Herron? That the incumbent Democrat — a member of the otherwise Republican House majority leadership — has not been Democratic enough.

"He's got a D behind his name but his votes are strictly lockstep with the Republicans," Fansler said. "He's really acting as a Democrat in name only, when it comes down to it."

Herron, in a phone interview, said Fansler's assertion was "overblown." And he pointed to his vote on HB 247, the oil-tax bill, in which he voted against the top member of the majority caucus, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

"All the time, I try to vote the way that will benefit my constituents," he added.