With less than two weeks until Election Day, the leading group encouraging Alaskans to vote no on a constitutional convention has raised much more money than its opponents after attracting a broad bipartisan group of supporters and a growing list of influential organizations backing its cause.
Dwarfed in spending, the leading yes group is fighting on two distinct fronts: In secular public forums, supporters are staying focused on a convention as a way to resolve the Permanent Fund dividend debates. Meanwhile, some of the same conservative supporters are also campaigning for a convention on social issues, such as ending or restricting abortion access and eliminating barriers for private and religious school funding. Those arguments are being made in forums such as churches, like the Anchorage Baptist Temple.
The once-in-a-decade-vote has been soundly defeated for the past 50 years. Based on polling, it’s expected to be much closer this year, due largely to long-simmering frustrations over the dividend.
Matt Shuckerow, spokesman for the leading no group, Defend Our Constitution, said organizers are not taking the election for granted. It has worked to tell voters that a convention would be opening “Pandora’s box” by putting the entire constitution on the table, and that it can already be changed through the amendment process, he said.
Defend Our Constitution spent almost $400,000 on a media buy at the end of September on radio and television advertisements. “It’s just too risky,” the campaign said, focusing on potential changes to hunting, fishing and privacy rights in Alaska.
The United Fishermen of Alaska recently announced that it is against a convention. The state’s largest commercial fishing trade association had concerns that the constitution’s provisions for fisheries management could be eliminated.
The Alaska Federation of Natives passed a resolution Saturday opposed to a convention, saying that rural Alaska had the most to lose.
The vast majority of the no group’s funding has come from Outside organizations, like the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which has been described as a left-wing dark money group.
Overall spending on the campaigns has been notably sparse compared to ballot initiatives in prior election cycles. And the convention debate has been somewhat drowned out, partly by the millions of dollars being spent on other high-profile state races in Alaska this year.
Jim Minnery, a member of the steering committee for Convention Yes, said the leading yes group remains “cautiously optimistic” despite being far outmatched in funding. Organizers plan to launch radio and print advertisements soon, he said.
[Watch below: Debate on whether Alaskans should vote for a constitutional convention]
In that leading role, Minnery has focused on the dividend and has attacked the no group for its Outside funding.
Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, chair of Convention Yes, spoke at a Resource Development Council forum last week. He focused his time on the dividend and stressed that voters would need to ratify any changes to the constitution proposed by a convention.
Prominent convention supporters have not backed putting the 1982 dividend formula into the constitution, despite echoing full PFD supporters in advertisements. Instead, they have said the dividend should be part of a constitutional fiscal plan, which includes a spending cap.
Opponents have said any PFD plan could be coupled with less popular amendments by delegates, who the constitution states would have unlimited power to draft proposed changes.
Mike Heatwole, a convention opponent who works as a spokesman for the Pebble Limited Partnership, told the resources community that multiple business groups have come out against a convention. They had concerns about impacts to a stable business climate in Alaska, he said.
Campbell was rebuked when he said the Alaska Miners Association supported a constitutional amendment to eliminate management of resources by ballot initiative.
Lorali Simon, an executive at the influential association, stood up and said that its members had voted to oppose a convention. The miners had concerns Outside special interests could hijack the process and that it could risk access to fisheries, navigable waters, mineral and water rights, their statement said.
Convention Yes is staying focused on the broadly popular proposition of resolving the dividend. As president of the Alaska Family Council, Minnery is set to join state Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, Thursday evening at the Anchorage Baptist Temple, arguing that it would be “unbiblical” to fear a convention.
The conservative Alaska Independence Party has long been the only significant party to have endorsed a convention. It has proposed a constitution that would see the document itself and state law subservient to God’s law.
Party Chair Bob Bird wrote the statement in support of a convention in the state’s official election pamphlet. He said that “a convention is a risk, but Alaskans are risk-takers.”
The AFN resolution opposed the party’s proposed constitution because of its calls for the state to encourage the dissolution of Native corporations and for local communities to be solely responsible for education funding.
No current sitting Democrats or independents have come out in support of a convention, but several conservative Republican legislators have. Abortion access has been a key issue for some.
Defend Our Constitution has supported the state constitution’s privacy clause, but it has not explicitly campaigned on abortion as its broad group of bipartisan members have divergent views on the procedure. A third group, Protect Our Rights: No on 1, is campaigning to protect abortion access in Alaska.
Rose O’Hara-Jolley, Alaska state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, is running that group, and said it is having success knocking on doors and phone banking to convince Alaskans of the risks a convention could pose to abortion access.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy indicated earlier in the month that he will personally vote “yes” for a convention, while not actively campaigning for one, saying the decision should be left to Alaskans. Convention Yes immediately latched onto Dunleavy’s personal support as part of its campaign on social media.
Republican former Kenai Peninsula Mayor Charlie Pierce has been strongly in support of holding a convention, while former independent Gov. Bill Walker and former democratic state legislator Les Gara, have been firmly against one.
Early voting started Oct. 24 and the general election will be held Nov. 8.