Alaska Legislature

Alaska Democrats are having trouble finding someone to replace former Rep. Westlake. Here’s why.

JUNEAU — Would you accept a job that requires you to move, take a massive pay cut and join an institution detested by many? And to reapply for the position in less than a year, at which point any salacious details of your personal life could be exposed to the public?

Those are the questions facing the potential replacements for Dean Westlake, the Democratic former representative from the Northwest Alaska village of Kiana who resigned last month amid allegations of unwanted sexual advances.

The Alaska Democratic Party two weeks ago sent Gov. Bill Walker three names to choose from: Leanna Mack, an aide to the mayor of the North Slope Borough, as well as two Kotzebue City Council members, Sandy Shroyer-Beaver and Eugene Smith.

But Walker hasn't picked one of them to fill Westlake's seat — representing House District 40 in northern Alaska — and in a phone interview Monday, he suggested that he's unlikely to.

"I think that it makes sense to have some additional options at this point," Walker said.

Mack has never held elected office, while Shroyer-Beaver and Smith were the subject of a story Monday on a political blog, the Alaska Landmine, that exposed a messy dispute involving both of them. The headline was: "A Drunken Mayor, Blackmail, Kivalina and District 40."

Walker interviewed a new candidate, Nana Regional Corp. executive John Lincoln, on Tuesday in Juneau, according to spokesman Austin Baird. The governor is scheduled to interview a fifth Wednesday: Abel Hopson-Suvlu, who's worked for Utqiagvik-based Arctic Slope Native Association, another regional health group.

The delay in identifying Westlake's replacement underscores the difficulty of recruiting candidates to serve in the Legislature — particularly from rural areas, where qualified, educated Alaskans typically hold well-paying jobs and and would face more time away from their families and cultures while serving in Juneau.

"I missed subsistence fishing. That would destroy a family," said Rep. Zach Fansler, a Democrat from the Southwest Alaska hub town of Bethel, referring to last year's extended legislative sessions. "Not only do you have to take a pay cut and manage dual places. But now you're not able to go subsistence fishing and to fill your racks."

One prospective candidate on the North Slope, prodded to run by a lobbyist, responded: "I'd miss whaling season."

Walker's deadline to pick a replacement for Westlake is this week.

The Alaska Democratic Party has been searching for someone to represent District 40, which sprawls 650 miles across the northern part of the state and spans two regions — the North Slope and the Northwest Arctic. The Legislature is into the second week of its annual session without anyone representing the district in the state House.

The Northwest Arctic Borough faces high unemployment and relatively low per-capita income — $21,000 — while the demographics of the North Slope Borough, rich with oil revenue, are wealthier. But in both areas, and across rural parts of the state, educated professionals can generally find good jobs close to home, whether they're with Alaska Native regional corporations, health care providers or municipal governments.

"People who are of the caliber that you want representing your district probably are already in a full-time job. And they're probably in a full-time job where the flexibility to take four months may not be there," said Jane Winzer, head of District 40 Democrats.

Shroyer-Beaver's full-time job with a Kotzebue-based tribal health-care provider, Maniilaq Association, paid her $83,000 in 2012, for example, according to a financial disclosure filed with the state. Smith's job, also at Maniilaq, paid him $112,000 in 2014.

State lawmakers get a $50,400 salary, though that's augmented by daily payments of more than $200 to cover expenses. And while the job is seen as part-time and typically limited to a 90-day session, gridlock in Juneau kept the Legislature in session for more than 200 days last year.

Many potential candidates also work in jobs that don't allow them to be politically active, or partisan, Winzer said. And state law bans legislators from lobbying for two years after leaving office.

Then there's the risk that your private life could end up being publicized.

"You know, we've all been young in our lives and make mistakes," said Reggie Joule, the former Democratic legislator from Kotzebue. "How long do you have to pay for those mistakes, even though they might have varying degrees of seriousness?"

Rural lawmakers also face logistical challenges that their more urban colleagues don't.

Fansler, the Bethel Democrat, said he went home just twice during the first three months of last year's legislative session.

It takes two separate flights to get to Bethel from Juneau, Fansler said. If he works through the end of the week, he doesn't get home until noon Saturday, then has to be back on a plane Sunday evening, at the latest, to arrive in Juneau in time for Monday morning meetings.

One of the reasons the arrangement works for Fansler, he said, is that he's unmarried, without kids.

Winzer, the Democratic district leader, said one of the things she realized during the selection process is that the dilemma for prospective legislators often hinges on what they'd sacrifice — not just what they'd gain by being appointed.

"It's not just what the legislator earns or what are their perks," she said. "It's the opportunity cost of what you're giving up to do it."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.