Politics

Alaska redistricting board links South Anchorage and south Eagle River in Senate, reviving accusations of gerrymandering

anchorage, census, Alaska Redistricting Board

The Alaska Redistricting Board has approved a new map of state Senate districts in Anchorage over the vehement objections of two board members who called the plan blatant gerrymandering and urged a state judge to overturn it.

“Draw the boundaries yourself. This board will continue to gerrymander. Don’t send it back. We are defunct, we are derelict in our duties,” said board member Nicole Borromeo.

A prior map, which created a Senate district linking south Eagle River and south Muldoon, was ruled an “unconstitutional political gerrymander” by the Alaska Supreme Court in March, and the board had been ordered to redo its work.

The new map approved Wednesday is subject to judicial review, and Borromeo’s comment was directed at the judge or judges who will review it.

Alaska’s state Senate districts are each made of two contiguous House districts, and entering Wednesday, the board had been considering two options to fix the issue in East Anchorage. Both link the two Muldoon state House districts together, but each concept did so in different ways.

The first, known as Option 2, would have joined Eagle River’s two House districts together. The second, known as Option 3B, would join south Eagle River to South Anchorage and Girdwood. It would also tie north Eagle River to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Government Hill.

After three hours of debate Wednesday, the board voted 3-2 in favor of Option 3B. That decision drew criticism, with the two members on the losing side of the vote saying that it improperly gives Eagle River greater representation in the state Senate.

In February, Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews noted that the redistricting board exhibited “regional partisanship” when its first map divided Eagle River across two Senate districts with the goal of giving it more representation.

Eagle River has a strong Republican lean, and dividing its votes between two districts could make those districts more firmly Republican.

“This is still gerrymandering, just in a different way, in my mind,” said board member Melanie Bahnke.

If upheld, Wednesday’s vote puts incumbent Sens. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, and Roger Holland, R-Anchorage, into the same district. Former Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, has already registered a run for office and is also in the district.

Two Senate districts have no incumbent — the Eagle River-JBER district, and a district running from Bayshore north to Taku/Campbell.

Legislative candidates have until June 1 to register for this fall’s election.

The members of the five-person redistricting board are political appointees, and the vote on both options fell along political lines.

Voting in favor of Option 3B were board members Budd Simpson and Bethany Marcum, appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and board chairman John Binkley, appointed by Giessel.

Voting against that option were board members Bahnke, appointed by former Chief Justice Joel Bolger, and Borromeo, appointed by former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham).

Simpson, Marcum and Binkley are registered Republicans. Bahnke and Borromeo are registered as undeclared. (Binkley is the father of the owners of the Daily News.)

Explaining his vote, Simpson said that with Muldoon’s two House districts joined together, it made more sense to join JBER to northern Eagle River than to join JBER and downtown Anchorage.

“I think pairing the military bases with the downtown overlooks JBER as a significant community of interest. I think that in itself could expose us to a constitutional challenge from that constituency,” he said.

That decision left south Eagle River with “no place else to go” except South Anchorage, he said.

In a week of public testimony, some residents argued against that linkage. The border between the two districts runs through the Chugach Mountains, and driving from one House district to the other can take more than 30 minutes.

Simpson said the transportation argument is irrelevant under the language of the Alaska Constitution.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

Binkley described the South Anchorage and south Eagle River districts as “large, more rural,” and said they share that commonality as well as a border.

He and Simpson said they believe the Supreme Court’s decision requires them only to join Muldoon’s two House districts.

Borromeo and Bahnke said that’s an incorrect interpretation and Option 3B gives Eagle River an unfair advantage in the state Senate.

“Eagle River is now going to have two senators; how is that not an advantage?” Borromeo asked.

Binkley and Simpson said the new map is not biased in favor of Republicans, citing as evidence the fact that Reinbold and Holland testified against the proposal. Giessel has also said she prefers joining Eagle River together.

“If the board’s option 3 is a naked partisan attempt to protect Republicans, why is it that Republican senators Lora Reinbold and Roger Holland have testified so vehemently against it?” Simpson asked.

Borromeo responded that the Republican establishment is unhappy with Reinbold and Holland and have reasons to want to get rid of them.

“We’re co-signing the Republican Party’s cannibalization of themselves,” she said.

She and Bahnke continued their opposition through the voting process Wednesday, even after the outcome was no longer in doubt.

“This process doesn’t feel Alaskan. I feel like I’m in 1950s Alabama,” Borromeo said. “What are we doing here?”

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.

Sponsored