Attorney asks judge to throw out Republican-supported map of Anchorage state Senate districts

A group of Girdwood residents seeking to overturn a proposed map of state Senate districts in Anchorage has presented new evidence of possible collusion among Republican-appointed members of the Alaska Redistricting Board.

Citing text messages and emails obtained from board members, the group’s attorney told a state judge on Thursday that the board had an “illegitimate purpose” and intended to favor Republicans when it drew a Senate district linking South Anchorage and south Eagle River.

Attorney Eva Gardner asked Judge Thomas Matthews to throw out the board’s map in favor of a different option that draws one Senate district for Eagle River.

If heavily Republican Eagle River is joined together, the district covering nearby Government Hill and Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson would switch from Republican-leaning to Democratic-leaning.

Matt Singer, the attorney defending the redistricting board, said Gardner’s claims are “just throwing mud and hoping something sticks” and that the board followed both the Alaska Constitution and state law.

Appeal expected

Matthews, who ruled that there was evidence of political gerrymandering in a prior version of the Senate map, must rule on the new challenge by Monday. An appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court is expected regardless of the outcome, and the court must rule in time for candidates to file for office by the June 1 deadline.

Gardner, building on Matthews’ ruling on an earlier Senate map, provided text messages and emails showing the three Republican-appointed board members in communication with each other and not with the nonpartisan members.

She told Matthews that she has not been able to obtain all of the messages she sought, but she said that what she did obtain shows the Republican board members concerned with partisan issues.

Simpson was in communication with a Republican political writer and his wife. At one point, she called two members registered as undeclared voters – Melanie Bahnke and Nicole Borromeo – “bitches of the highest order.”

The messages also show board member Bethany Marcum received at least one message from a mailing list operated by the National Republican Redistricting Trust, an organization whose goal is to draw legislative boundaries favoring conservative politicians.

Neither Marcum nor Simpson returned text messages seeking comment on Thursday.

Gardner said that after the first redistricting lawsuit found evidence of collusion, these and other new messages indicate the collusion continued after the map was redrawn.

“We acknowledge that the evidence of secret agreements that we’ve provided is circumstantial. But circumstantial evidence is still evidence,” she said.

Singer, given a chance to respond, urged Matthews to call the board members as witnesses and ask them directly. Given the tight timeline needed to render a verdict, the judge declined.

Alaska’s five-person redistricting board is in charge of redrawing the boundaries of the state’s legislative districts to account for changes in population as measured by the U.S. Census.

Its members are appointed by high-ranking state officials.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed registered Republicans Marcum and Simpson. Former Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, appointed registered Republican John Binkley.

Former Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, appointed Borromeo, and former Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger appointed Bahnke.

The board approved a map of state House districts in November, which survived legal challenges with few changes. State Senate districts are each made of two adjacent House districts, and finalizing the Senate map has been much more controversial.

The board’s initial plan joined south Eagle River with south Muldoon, an act opposed by Bahnke and Borromeo, who said it appeared to be politically motivated in order to favor Republican-leaning Eagle River.

A group of East Anchorage residents sued, and both Matthews and the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in their favor.

The Supreme Court said the board’s plan “constituted an unconstitutional political gerrymander violating equal protection under the Alaska Constitution,” and ordered that it be redrawn.

In its second draft, the board’s Republican members — again over the objections of Borromeo and Bahnke — linked north Eagle River’s state House seat with the seat covering Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Anchorage’s Government Hill neighborhood.

That choice, coupled with the prior ruling and the board’s unwillingness to cross Anchorage’s municipal boundaries, left board members to join south Eagle River with South Anchorage over the uninhabited Chugach Mountains.

Singer, representing the board, said that decision was the natural outcome of the board’s decision-making process.

But area residents disagree and filed suit, seeking a legal ruling that would force the Eagle River state House districts together.

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon.