JUNEAU — Meet the freshmen.
This year, the 60-person Alaska Legislature includes 14 people who have never before served as Alaska lawmakers. (There are two former House members now serving in the Senate.)
“Basically a third of all of them have never done this before,” said Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, referring to the 12 new members of the House.
Two years ago, 15 new lawmakers joined the Legislature. Over the past four years, more than half of the Legislature’s incumbents have left office, replaced by people who may be unfamiliar to Alaskans outside their home districts.
While each of them will become known for policy positions and votes, all have likes, dislikes and interests that don’t normally get attention. To better understand the people behind the votes of the 31st Alaska Legislature, we talked with each of the new lawmakers.
North Kenai Republican Ben Carpenter joins the Legislature after a close primary that saw him emerge the winner after a recount. His general election win was easier — he won by 38 percentage points.
In his new Capitol office, Carpenter said he’s still settling in. His children and wife are back on the Kenai Peninsula after swearing-in celebrations.
Carpenter comes across as a serious person, he said, “but once people get to know me, I am fairly lighthearted … so give me a chance."
Carpenter farms peonies and in his spare time enjoys spending time with his family. That might include cross-country skiing, a quiet game night at home, or just a movie on the couch.
He’d love to finish flying lessons and get a pilot’s license, but his new job means he might have to shelve that idea for a while, he said.
Zach Fields and his wife, Khalial Withen, love the outdoors, but now the Anchorage Democrat finds himself spending plenty of time indoors at the Capitol.
He’s also finding himself away from his 1-year-old daughter.
“Definitely the biggest change and the biggest sacrifice is to not be able to wake up with your daughter … and read to her and play with her,” he said.
Bringing her to Juneau wasn’t an option, he said. His wife has an established legal career, and then there’s daycare to consider.
“We’d have to give up our daycare in Anchorage, and that’s an almost insurmountable obstacle,” he said.
Fields has taken over the seat representing downtown Anchorage, and so instead of sharing a home with his daughter, he’s sharing one with another lawmaker.
“Matt Claman’s my roommate,” he said.
Elvi Gray-Jackson spent nine years on the Anchorage Assembly, and she comes to Juneau representing a district covering the University of Alaska Anchorage, Midtown and parts of Spenard.
Gray-Jackson has a deadpan sense of humor she was quick to exhibit when the session began.
“I am new to this level of government, but I know where the bathrooms are, also,” she said during her first press conference.
In her office, she said she knows there’s a temptation in the Capitol for people to say “Senator” or “Representative" when referring to lawmakers. She just wants to be called “Elvi.”
One of her biggest surprises switching from the Assembly to the Legislature came when she began hiring staff. Members of the Assembly don’t have dedicated helpers.
“Getting all this attention and help, I’m like wow, really?” she said.
Gray-Jackson is a self-taught seamstress and for years made all her own clothes. She doesn’t have that kind of time now, but she’s still a big fan of cooking for herself.
“I’m a self-taught gourmet cook, and I’m really good at it,” she said.
Walking around Juneau, Sara Hannan is sure to run into people she knows. Hannan, who represents downtown Juneau, taught for almost 20 years at Juneau-Douglas High School, and plenty of her former students are still in the capital city.
Her teaching experience does come with a drawback, she said: She has to learn to speak like a legislator, not like a teacher addressing a classroom.
“I’m trying to quell my teacher instincts on that,” she said.
As a legislative staffer, Fairbanks Democrat Grier Hopkins used to wonder what the Capitol’s legislators-only lounge was like. When he found out, he was disappointed.
"It’s pretty underwhelming in there. They’ve got open shelves where they’re stacking all the to-go boxes, stuff like that,” he said.
Hopkins is a supporter of youth sports and outdoor activities, and dabbles in ax throwing.
“Some of our friends back in Goldstream do a little bit of ax throwing ... you try to knock each other out — not with the ax,” he said.
This year, Hopkins replaces David Guttenberg in the district covering western Fairbanks, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Though the lounge was a disappointment, he’s been able to see closed caucus meetings for the first time and is part of things he only experienced from the wrong side of the door.
“Coming from being experienced staff to being a legislator now, I’m getting to see the whole picture, which is nice,” he said.
The freshman with the most unusual route to the Legislature is Sharon Jackson, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to fill an Eagle River House seat vacated by Nancy Dahlstrom.
Jackson knows how to make the best of a shot: She’s an expert pool player and has competed at the national level.
As for her other hobbies?
“I play djembe, which I love. A good drum circle would just make my day,” she said.
When it comes to getting away from the Capitol, the best way to relax is to just find a cozy spot and unwind, she said.
Some warm hot chocolate helps, but bubble baths are perfect, she said.
“I love bubble baths with lavender salts: Smell good, feel good, relax.”
The freshman senator representing northern Southeast has the shortest commute of any lawmaker in the Capitol. As he puts it, his house is three blocks over and one block up.
Jesse Kiehl is a freshman only in the technical sense — he worked 18 years as a legislative aide to two senators representing northern Southeast. To longtime legislative employees, he’s as known as the building itself.
“My old friends don’t seem to think my feet smell anymore. And they’re wrong,” Kiehl said. “It’s really good everybody respects the institution, but I’m still just me.”
Kiehl is married, with two daughters — Tsifira and Adara — and was born and raised in Anchorage before moving to Juneau to take a government job under then-Gov. Tony Knowles.
Bart LeBon, the new Republican legislator from Fairbanks, stands out in a crowd — he’s almost as tall as Gov. Dunleavy.
“I think he has me by a solid inch, inch and a half,” LeBon said with a smile.
LeBon came to the Legislature after winning election by a single vote. The extended legal battle that followed meant he was the last elected lawmaker to arrive in Juneau. (Sharon Jackson, who was appointed, arrived later.)
His late arrival meant he had to scramble to find staff (he still lacks a front-desk worker and was answering phones before his interview) and ended up staying at a bed-and-breakfast owned by a friend.
LeBon spent years as a banker in Fairbanks, but he came to Alaska on a basketball scholarship at the University of Alaska. Dunleavy played college basketball, too.
“He played college basketball; I played college basketball, but he’s much younger than I am,” LeBon said. “I would have loved to play against him when I was in college, because then he would have been only 8 years old.”
For Eagle River Republican Kelly Merrick, joining the Legislature is almost a homecoming. Merrick was born and raised in Juneau and still has family here, so it’s no surprise that she feels comfortable in the capital.
The day of her interview, she had switched her shoes from high heels to furry flip-flops.
“I’m a fiscal conservative, so I shop at the (Nordstrom) Rack, not at Nordstrom,” she said.
After spending 13 years as a homemaker, her election to the Legislature puts her back in an office.
“It’s kind of surreal to come back in this capacity,” she said.
The youngest member of this year’s freshman class — and now the youngest Alaska lawmaker overall — is 28-year-old Sand Lake Republican Sara Rasmussen.
In her office, Rasmussen wasn’t shy about talking about her relative youth: It came up during her campaign too.
She remembers knocking on the door of a Republican voter who said he was concerned about her maturity.
“I think I changed his mind,” she said.
Rasmussen is in Juneau with her two young children, Grayson and Charlotte, though they had to leave their dog and cat with Rasmussen’s mother in Anchorage.
“It’s so hard to find a rental that accommodates pets down here,” she said.
The last time Josh Revak spent extended time away from his wife, he came home with a Purple Heart.
This time isn’t fun either, but it’s not that bad, he said in his new Capitol office. Revak, 37, is the new representative for Anchorage’s Abbott district, replacing last year’s House minority leader, Charisse Millett.
Revak is a U.S. Army veteran with a talent for music.
“I play guitar. I’ve played guitar my whole life,” he said, and he brought his instrument down to Juneau with him.
Revak joins a long line of legislators with musical talent and said he would “absolutely” play on the Alaska Folk Fest stage if time and work allow.
“Music is one thing that can bring people together,” he said.
Laddie Shaw, 69, is the mustachioed freshman lawmaker from South Anchorage, House District 26. He might be new, but plenty of people in the Capitol are already following in his footsteps — up the stairs.
In one of his first acts as a lawmaker, Shaw (a former Navy SEAL) pledged to ignore the six-story building’s elevators. For the next two years, he’ll take the stairs.
“You’ve got to move to keep living,” Shaw said.
He’s not limited to the stairs, either. During his years as a lobbyist in Juneau, Shaw climbed all of Juneau’s major peaks. Rather than descend the normal way, he preferred to paraglide off the summit, a hobby he continued after moving to Anchorage.
In the Capitol, he’s already known for turning his energy to conversation.
“I’m gregarious, I guess you could say,” he said.
Democrat Andi Story spent 12 years on Juneau’s school board before being elected to represent Juneau’s bedroom community, the Mendenhall Valley, in the House.
She’s one of three lawmakers who has the privilege of going home to her own bed — as opposed to a rental — at the end of the day, but she said there’s a downside to that, too.
“When you’re here without your family, it’s easier to be out in long meetings and be gone ... but I definitely think there’s an advantage to having your support system nearby,” she said.
Coming from Homer, Republican Sara Vance has found Juneau has plenty of similarities to her hometown: the weather, the landscape, and a tight-knit community. Stops at the downtown used-book store help, too.
“It’s made me feel at home,” she said.
One thing Juneau doesn’t have: Vance’s four children, who have stayed back in Homer.
For now, she’s making do with frequent Facetime, phone calls and knitted substitutes. She enjoys knitting and created four small dolls, each representing one of her children. They sit on her desk as a reminder, and she’s posed with them around the Capitol, posting pictures to her kids, letting them know that she’s thinking about them.
They have one, too. It’s a doll of her.
The other night, she said, she talked to one of her daughters over the phone.
“I’m sleeping with you, mama," she said.