In what appears to be a first for a sitting governor, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Tuesday that he will vote “yes” for a constitutional convention in November.
Dunleavy made the announcement during a gubernatorial forum Tuesday afternoon hosted by the Alaska Resource Development Council at the Egan Center in Anchorage. He has previously said that he would stay neutral in the convention debate.
Andrew Jensen, who works in the governor’s office and volunteers for Dunleavy’s campaign, said Dunleavy has been consistent in his convention position.
“The governor’s decision today when presented with a yes or no question was to answer in the affirmative that he will vote to support a constitutional convention. He still trusts the people of Alaska to ultimately make the decision. Whatever the people decide is going to be fine with him,” Jensen said.
Dunleavy told the Daily News in August that he hadn’t made his mind up whether he would personally vote for a convention. He said that was a combination of having not decided yet and not wanting to share that information publicly. In an issue survey by Alaska news organizations — including the Daily News — in September, Dunleavy said, “I trust the people of Alaska, and will respect either decision they make. I disagree with the argument being made that there is something to fear from a convention.” But he stopped short of endorsing a convention.
The question of whether there shall be a constitutional convention appears on the Alaska general election ballot every 10 years. It has been soundly defeated in recent cycles, but opponents and supporters both believe that vote will be closer this year, largely because of gridlock in the state Capitol over the Permanent Fund dividend.
Tuesday’s question came during a “lightning round” where candidates for governor could raise a green “yes” sign or a red “no” sign, but there was no opportunity for further debate or explanation. The moderator asked, “Will you be voting for a constitutional convention on Nov. 8?”
Former independent Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic former state legislator Les Gara quickly flashed their red “no” signs. Republican former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce quickly showed he would be voting yes. Dunleavy paused before he also raised his green “yes” sign, showing that he, too, would vote for a constitutional convention.
Pierce had all but disappeared from the campaign trail after a “credible” harassment by a Kenai Peninsula Borough employee was brought to light in September. He reappeared last week at a Homer Chamber of Commerce forum where he voiced support for a convention and carved out a populist right-wing stance on several key issues, including supporting a full statutory Permanent Fund dividend.
”It can only help us,” said Bob Bird, head of the Alaskan Independence Party, and a staunch longtime supporter of a constitutional convention, about Dunleavy’s stance. Bird said he doesn’t know of any other incumbent governor who has publicly said they would vote for a convention.
“Never, Never. I’ve been here 45 years and every year, every decade, it’s been a yawner,” he said about the once-in-a-decade convention vote.
Longtime political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt, who typically works on progressive campaigns, also didn’t know of any other incumbent Alaska governors who had said they would vote for a convention. Former Republican lieutenant governors Craig Campbell and Loren Leman are supporting a convention vote this year.
Convention YES, the leading group in support of a convention, has made the dividend the focus of its campaign while emphasizing that any draft changes from a convention would then need to be supported by a majority of voters to be approved. Prominent conservatives are calling for a convention as a way to restrict or end abortion access, to change how judges are chosen in Alaska and to reshape public education.
Defend Our Constitution, the leading campaign against a convention, has said that putting the entire constitution on the table for potential changes would be akin to opening “Pandora’s box” and could invite Outside special interests to come and advocate for their own priorities.
Unless the Legislature passes a different guiding law, a convention would generally follow the rules used for the 1955 convention, which drafted Alaska’s Constitution before statehood. That means that if it’s approved in the November election, Alaskans would likely vote during the 2024 election to choose delegates, which can include sitting legislators. Cost estimates for a convention range from a few million dollars to upward of $20 million.
Supporters stress that any draft changes to the constitution approved through a convention would then need to go before Alaska voters, likely in 2026. If a majority didn’t support them, those proposed changes would be rejected.
Opponents say that’s still too risky and that Outside special interests would flood in leading up to the convention and during the convention itself to advocate for their own priorities.
According to the latest financial disclosure documents, Defend Our Constitution had raised almost $2.8 million. The bulk of that funding came from Outside groups like the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit described by the New York Times as a left-wing dark money group, which has donated almost $2 million to the campaign in total.
Alaska AFL-CIO President Joelle Hall, a member of Defend Our Constitution’s executive committee, called the focus on donations from the Lower 48 “a distraction.”
Leading convention opponents have said Dunleavy’s professed neutrality on the convention has been a smokescreen with his support for constitutionalizing the dividend and calling for a constitutional amendment debate over abortion access. Hall said politically engaged Alaskans would likely not be surprised that Dunleavy announced he would be voting yes on the constitutional convention question.
“I don’t know what this will do to more moderate Republicans and independents in the middle,” Hall said. “I think we’ve made the case that it’s dangerous and unnecessary and expensive. And I guess the governor has to tell people why he thinks it’s safe to open it up. I just don’t see the rationale.”
Daily News reporter Iris Samuels contributed to this report.