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Gov. Dunleavy recall effort can proceed, Alaska Supreme Court rules

JUNEAU — An effort to remove Gov. Mike Dunleavy from office can proceed, the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled.

In a brief order published Friday afternoon, the state Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling that found recall proponents had met the legal standard necessary to propose a recall. Backers still must gather the signatures of at least 71,252 registered voters in order to force a referendum on Dunleavy’s tenure.

“It’s go time,” said Claire Pywell, campaign manager for Recall Dunleavy, the group pursuing the governor’s removal.

“We’ve been confident in these grounds since the beginning, but it is a huge win for all of our supporters, all of the folks who have been so committed,” she said.

If recall supporters gather sufficient signatures, that would force a statewide vote. If the vote to recall Dunleavy succeeds, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer would become governor.

Signature gathering has been largely suspended amid public health guidelines that discouraged close contact between people who are not members of the same household.

According to figures updated May 4, proponents have garnered 34,802 signatures. More than 21,000 of those signatures were gathered in two weeks before the mandates took effect. Last summer, backers gathered 46,405 valid signatures over about five weeks.

Pywell said Recall Dunleavy had already been planning a push to begin next week with physical mailers, radio and TV advertising, digital advertising and phone banking.

With the advice of medical officials, she said the group is not resuming full-bore signature-gathering but is continuing an effort to mail signature booklets to interested Alaskans and is planning drive-thru signature drives later in May.

She said the campaign believes it must gather enough signatures before July 3 in order to place a recall on the November general election ballot. (If supporters gather sufficient signatures after that date, a special election would be held.)

Asked whether the campaign would prefer to have a statewide vote on the general election ballot or by itself in a special election, Pywell said, “We need it as soon as possible.”

Cynthia Henry, head of Keep Dunleavy, a pro-governor group, said she had not heard of the court’s decision before being called Friday.

“That’s an interesting development,” she said.

She said she believes the governor’s response to the ongoing pandemic has convinced some skeptics who previously favored a recall.

“The governor has done such a good job dealing with this pandemic that I’ve seen blogs and heard people say ... they’ve been impressed,” she said.

“My sense was that there was a real loss of steam on the recall side,” Henry said.

Pywell said that if the recall has lost steam, that’s more a factor of public health restrictions than any lack of interest.

“Nothing has changed in terms of the governor’s values,” Pywell said.

Christy Carmichael of Fairbanks is an Alaskan who supported the recall, then cheered the governor’s response to the pandemic.

On social media in April, she said she does think he’s “handling the pandemic really well” but added, “I do still have some issues with the way the governor handles some things, such as the budget. I don’t think that this 'makes up’ for the other things.”

Last year, the recall campaign began by alleging four reasons for the governor’s removal:

• The governor broke state law, Recall Dunleavy said, by failing to appoint a superior court judge on time.

• Dunleavy illegally used state money for ads and mailers against political opponents, the group said.

• He improperly vetoed money for the judiciary and public health, the group said.

• He acted incompetently with a mistaken veto, the group said.

All five Supreme Court justices hearing the case said the first two grounds are legal reasons for a recall. In the third reason, all justices upheld a lower-court ruling that the governor’s public health vetoes were not sufficient grounds for a recall.

Four of five justices — Justice Craig Stowers dissenting — said the judiciary veto and mistaken veto were also legal reasons for a veto.

Chief Justice Joel Bolger recused himself from the case, and a temporary replacement filled in the fifth spot on the court.

The court did not immediately provide a full written explanation of its legal decision but said one would be published at a later date.

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