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In Fairbanks, Coghill fights to save his state Senate seat against challenger Hopkins

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 25, 2016
  • Published September 25, 2016

FAIRBANKS — John Coghill, a Republican state senator from North Pole, won 60 percent of the vote in his last campaign and has served continuously in the Legislature since first being elected to the House in 1998.

But when Coghill returned to his Interior base this summer, after an endless string of legislative sessions that failed to close Alaska's gaping budget deficit, his constituents — even longtime supporters — gave him a nasty welcome.

"It was not pleasant coming home," Coghill said. "I probably heard it as much as any: 'What are you guys doing down there? Bunch of idiots — you've done nothing, and now you're taking my Permanent Fund away.'"

North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill stands outside a Fairbanks restaurant next to his pickup truck, which he’s converted into a rolling campaign advertisement. He’s running for re-election in what’s expected to be a hard-fought campaign against Democrat Luke Hopkins, the former two-term Fairbanks borough mayor. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

If Coghill had been up for re-election in July, instead of in November, he said, he thinks he would have lost his seat.

As it is, Coghill, 66, still has his work cut out for him. In May, three weeks before the filing deadline, Luke Hopkins, the former two-term Fairbanks borough mayor, announced he would run for Coghill's seat as a Democrat.

Hopkins, a carpenter who retired after working his way up to buildings superintendent at University Alaska Fairbanks, had just finished six years as mayor, a nonpartisan position. He departed shortly before the announcement that two squadrons of F-35 fighter jets would be moved to nearby Eielson Air Force Base — a huge boost for the local economy that could generate more than $1 billion in annual revenue for the borough.

Former Fairbanks borough mayor Luke Hopkins reviews campaign literature with a resident during a door-to-door canvass. Hopkins, a Democrat, is running for a state Senate seat. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

A revised redistricting map had also sliced some 1,750 registered Republicans out of Coghill's Senate District B and added more than 400 new Democrats — a change likely to cut into Coghill's 2012 winning margin of 3,300 votes.

Both sides are now digging in for what's expected to be a tight race. Coghill is playing defense, working to convince his constituents that his criminal justice reform initiative, and his vote to reduce Permanent Fund dividends to buttress Alaska's shaky finances, were in their interests.

Hopkins is on the attack, casting Coghill's high-ranking position in the Senate — he's the Republican majority leader — as a failure, after the Legislature adjourned having closed but a fraction of the state's budget deficit.

"I see a lack of leadership, being able to take the issues on," Hopkins said in an interview at his campaign office this week. "And then we dealt with months and months and months of other issues that I don't think were pertinent to the fiscal plan."

The two men offer a choice to district residents, who live along a big arc north of the city that shifts from liberal to conservative as it wraps from west to east.

Two House districts, 3 and 4, split the Senate district along its ideological fault line. Democratic state Rep. David Guttenberg — Hopkins' brother-in-law — represents the district's western half, near University of Alaska Fairbanks. The eastern half of the district includes Coghill's home of North Pole. It's represented by Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson, who's proposed huge budget cuts to the state university system and questioned the existence of the economic principle of inflation.

Coghill, whose father was a lieutenant governor and state senator and helped write the state Constitution, is himself a fiscal and social conservative who's backed abortion restrictions and a bill to make guns more accessible on state university campuses.

But his biggest accomplishment in this year's session was the criminal justice overhaul — a project he worked on with Anchorage Democratic Sen. Johnny Ellis, with assistance from an East Coast foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In sponsoring the legislation, Coghill became the latest Republican to fall in with the "Right on Crime" movement — a national, conservative-led initiative to reduce the soaring cost of criminal justice spending. Other supporters of broad changes to the nation's criminal justice system include former Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the billionaire conservative Koch brothers.

Alaska's prison population grew more than 25 percent in the past decade, nearly three times as fast as the population, and the state's policies didn't seem to be working: After being released, two-thirds of inmates return to state facilities within three years.

"The recidivism rate is high. The cost of incarceration is high," Coghill told an audience at the Fairbanks library Tuesday night. "And the situation is not getting any better."

At its core, Coghill's bill promotes cheaper alternatives to jail that he and other advocates say will be more effective at deterring repeat offenders, while diverting some of the savings to monitoring accused suspects out on bail and to programs that treat drug and alcohol addiction.

It's projected to save the state $380 million by 2024.

Alaska Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams, right, speaks with North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, center, and Jordan Shilling, an aide to Coghill, inside the Fairbanks library. Williams and Coghill both spoke about criminal justice reform legislation that Coghill sponsored, at a forum at the library Tuesday night. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

But the bill has drawn condemnation from some victims advocates and law enforcement organizations who argue the legislation is too soft on criminals. Hopkins says the law has "good points to it," but he would have liked to see changes made before Coghill's bill passed.

"The victims still have to be protected somehow," Hopkins said.

Asked three times if he would have voted for Coghill's legislation, Hopkins wouldn't give a direct yes or no, but had a lot to say about the bill and his view of its shortcomings.

Coghill said his district is filled with police officers, which won't help his campaign, and Hopkins has already received a $1,000 contribution from the union that represents state troopers.

But Coghill is also working hard to make sure people understand his perspective on the legislation. He carries a red folder to meetings that's filled with notes and documents, and earlier this year, his Republican-led Senate majority drafted talking points with "myths and facts" to help members field questions and criticism.

"The most challenging part of the bill is making sure that accurate information about what the bill actually does gets out there — and putting down the misinformation," Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams said in an interview after the Fairbanks forum. "I think we have a ways to go. There's definitely room for improvement in terms of our ability to communicate what the bill really does and what it doesn't do."

Permanent Fund

A bigger issue among Coghill's conservative base may be his vote on the Permanent Fund legislation, which the Senate passed 14-5 before it died in the House Finance Committee.

The bill would have halved the state's multibillion-dollar budget deficit by diverting some of the Permanent Fund's investment earnings to pay for government services. But it also would have reduced the dividend from a projected $2,000 to $1,000 — a move Gov. Bill Walker made himself through a line-item budget veto after the House rejected the Senate's legislation.

Coghill is planning a radio ad to explain his position — that using the Permanent Fund's earnings is reasonable, as long as lawmakers keep pursuing budget cuts at their current pace. But, he added: "I honestly don't know how people will accept that."

Hopkins uses the Permanent Fund bill as one of his first lines of attack.

He acknowledged that the fund would likely be necessary to balance the state's budget, but said he'd only approve dividend reductions if they were part of a broader package, like the nine cash-generating measures proposed by Walker earlier this year.

Of those nine, Coghill's Senate majority allowed votes on two of them, with leaders saying they weren't interested in advancing Walker's proposed new tax on personal income, or tax increases on industries like commercial fishing and mining.

The Senate also rejected legislation passed by the House that would have phased out tax deductions that only apply to four of Alaska's largest oil companies — Hilcorp, BP, Exxon Mobil, and ConocoPhillips — though it approved a scaled-back version of the bill that sharply cut cash subsidies for smaller producers.

"The Senate acted on the Permanent Fund dividend — meaning they took half of that — and then basically leadership said, 'We aren't going to consider anything else,' " Hopkins said. "The Senate kept saying, 'We're not sure we have all the impacts.' Well, that's what you're elected to do — grab those things and do something."

Former Fairbanks borough mayor Luke Hopkins, a Democrat, makes a note while on a door-to-door neighborhood canvass in the state Senate district he’s seeking to represent. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

Hopkins doesn't have a full deficit-reduction plan that he pitches to voters; instead, he describes his view of the Legislature's failings, as well as his two terms as borough mayor.

On a door-to-door canvass this week north of the university campus, people were quick to recognize Hopkins, who campaigns wearing an F-35 pin.

"He's never taken it off," said Hopkins' son, Grier, a former legislative aide who now works for a teachers union and helps his father's campaign at night.

Local Democrats are hoping that Hopkins, 68, can reclaim a seat in the Legislature's upper chamber for their party after two former Fairbanks Democrats, Joe Paskvan and Joe Thomas — known as "the Joes" — lost their Senate seats in 2012, following the adoption of new district maps drawn by a Republican-dominated redistricting board. Thomas was placed in the same district as Coghill.

Three of the six Fairbanks area House seats are represented by Democrats, but all three senators are now Republicans.

Democrats argue that the Senate districts were gerrymandered — drawn to favor Republicans — which, they say, contributed to that chamber's inability to agree with the House on broad budget reforms this year.

"The Senate does not know what compromise is — they didn't talk to us. There was very little communication," said Guttenberg, the Democratic House member whose sister is married to Hopkins. "They're way too strident."

Changing map

Hopkins' advantage this year is a new redistricting map adopted after the Alaska Supreme Court's rejection of the previous version as unconstitutional. That ruling allowed the unconstitutional version to be used once, in the 2012 election.

The map used in Coghill's race that year excluded two liberal-leaning communities near Fairbanks, Goldstream and Ester, and instead attached them to a separate, massive rural district that extended hundreds of miles west to the Bering Sea, a region that normally votes Democratic.

The current plan puts Goldstream and Ester in Coghill's district, and shifted heavily Republican communities like Salcha and Eielson Air Force Base into Republican Sen. Click Bishop's District C. Bishop isn't up for re-election this year.

Republicans still substantially outnumber Democrats in the district. But Guttenberg argues that Coghill's politics, plus a national anti-incumbent mood, makes the race competitive — especially when combined with Coghill's votes.

"The criminal justice reform has motivated the cops and public safety people to draw the line," Guttenberg said. "And the Permanent Fund is everybody else."

Coghill said he's usually able to judge voters' moods. But this year, he said, he can't be certain how they'll react at the polls.

And after nearly 20 years in the Legislature, he said he also wasn't sure what he'd do if he lost his seat.

"I'm a praying man," Coghill said. "So I'm going to leave that up to my good Lord."

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