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Alaska Legislature

Former state Rep. Zach Fansler resigned amid scandal. His aides are still quietly carrying on.

Mary Aparezuk, left, and Michelle Sparck stand outside the office of House District 38 at the Capitol. Aparezuk and Sparck have been working without a boss for the past month after former Rep. Zach Fansler, a Democrat from Bethel, resigned when a woman accused him of slapping her. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

JUNEAU — The Monday after a scandal broke involving former state Rep. Zach Fansler, lobbyist Ray Matiashowski was wondering about a meeting he'd scheduled with the Bethel Democrat to talk about a halfway house.

Since the weekend, when news of the accusations emerged, Fansler had vanished. But that Monday, in a Capitol hallway, Matiashowski ran into Michelle Sparck, one of Fansler's aides. She told him to bring his client by the office for a meeting with her.

"She sat on the couch. We sat on the chairs," Matiashowski said. "She didn't miss a beat."

After Fansler resigned earlier this month, the new representative for his Southwest Alaska House district was announced this week by Alaska Gov. Bill Walker. Tiffany Zulkosky, an executive at a Bethel-based Native health organization, is expected to be sworn in by early March.

By then, more than a month will have passed since Fansler was taking meetings and attending hearings at the Capitol. But with his seat in limbo, his rural House District 38 has benefited from the quiet work of a pair of energetic advocates in Sparck and Mary Aparezuk, who was Fansler's chief of staff.

For the past few weeks, they've been attending committee hearings, lobbying for budget items, fielding constituent calls and trying to keep Fansler's legislation alive — a lesson in how the Capitol depends on its legislative aides, who sometimes work longer hours and carry more institutional knowledge than their bosses.

The two women are both Alaska Native, with roots in the district they work for. Those ties, they said, have guided them.

"Being from the land, from the region, there's an inherent knowledge of what the barriers and challenges are, what our strengths are," Sparck said in an interview this week, seated next to Aparezuk in Fansler's old office, where the pair still works.

Aparezuk added: "The connection to the region is really powerful for the two of us."

Aparezuk, 36, was born in Bethel — the hub town at the center of District 38, which also includes nearly three dozen villages. She moved to Juneau as a child with her mother, who once worked as a legislative aide to former state Rep. Ivan Ivan of Akiak.

Sparck, 45, grew up in Bethel and spent summers at her family's fish camp in the village of Chevak, 150 miles to the northwest.

She's been an aide to U.S. Rep. Don Young and former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. And she's one of five children of the late Harold Sparck, a prominent Western Alaska political and fisheries activist who was one of the architects of a program that vested Bering Sea villages with lucrative federal quotas of halibut and pollock.

Both women said they felt comfortable working with Fansler and were shocked to learn of the allegations against their boss, who was halfway through his first two-year term.

Former Rep. Zach Fansler (Marc Lester / ADN)

The woman who accused Fansler, who has not been identified, told the Juneau Empire she was in Fansler's hotel room after a night of drinking when he slapped her multiple times. An attorney for Fansler, Wally Tetlow, has said Fansler denies the allegations, but hasn't offered an alternative version of events.

After the Empire's story was published, leaders of Fansler's House majority coalition called for his resignation and asked him to turn in his office keys. They also moved an intern to another legislative office and assigned his aides —Aparezuk, Sparck and part-time employees in Anchorage and Bethel — a new boss, Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux.

LeDoux, one of three Republicans in the largely Democratic majority, technically oversees all staff as chair of the House Rules Committee. But Aparezuk and Sparck said they've been free to continue their work on behalf of District 38.

That's included responding to constituents, like a woman in the village of Tuntutuliak who needed help with her disabled husband's Permanent Fund dividend application.

Aparezuk is still coordinating one of Fansler's bills, to direct more cash to legal aid for low-income Alaskans, which has been adopted by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman. And they've been lobbying for their district's budget priorities.

Their efforts have yielded some successes, such as additional money for Western Alaska fisheries programs. They're also hopeful the House budget will include $210,000 to support a new rural "defense force" similar to the National Guard.

Michelle Sparck attends a Thursday hearing of the House Fisheries Committee. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

The two women said Fansler's former colleagues have embraced many of his priorities and bills. But they also are quick to point out that they don't have the same power as a legislator — making it harder to function in the transactional world of state politics, since they can't offer the essential element of those transactions.

"We don't have the vote," Aparezuk said. "We're leaning entirely on the goodwill of other members."

District 38's office is not the only one that lacked a legislator this year.

Former Kiana Democratic Rep. Dean Westlake resigned in December after being accused of unwanted sexual advances by seven women at the Capitol. In the weeks before Walker appointed a replacement, Westlake's chief of staff, Jesse Logan, worked alone out of a Capitol office with no name tag on the door.

Logan said he spent most of his time helping constituents with their problems, with occasional email blasts about the periodic openings of the Division of Motor Vehicles office in Kotzebue, one of the House district's hub towns.

Former Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Dunleavy resigned in mid-January, and a former aide and intern have been working in his old office since then, monitoring committee hearings and bills that could affect their Mat-Su district.

The intern, 20-year-old Jacob Almeida, said he's been keeping a spreadsheet that tracks constituent calls — on issues ranging from Medicaid billing to gubernatorial appointments — to hand off to Dunleavy's replacement, Mike Shower, whom Walker appointed this week.

"He's got the values and drive and determination to represent the people," Almeida said. "I just want to help him along the way."

Working with a pair of experienced legislative aides was "instrumental" in bringing Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz up to speed when she was sworn in in the middle of the 2016 session, she said.

Spohnholz's predecessor, Max Gruenberg, died suddenly while in office. She arrived the day the House voted on the state operating budget and, she said, later leaned heavily on Gruenberg's aides to help her understand policy and legislative process.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz (Marc Lester / ADN)

"The way that the Legislature works is Byzantine and opaque," she said. "I would say they were guides."

With Fansler gone, Sparck and Aparezuk said they've been taking meetings so they can brief their new boss about their district's issues and priorities. But there's also no guarantee that Fansler's replacement, Zulkosky, will offer them jobs.

Sparck said she assumes she and Aparezuk will help bring Zulkosky up to speed. Whether to keep the aides on the payroll, Sparck added, "is her prerogative," but for now, she said, she's just happy the district has representation again.

"It was a rough month," she said.

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