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Redistricting board sets stage for Senate clash

Posted: June 4, 2011 - 9:04pm
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Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, listens as Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, speaks to the media during the last evening of the 2011 Alaska State Legislative Session. The Alaska Redistricting Board's plans could affect their Senate seats.   Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, listens as Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, speaks to the media during the last evening of the 2011 Alaska State Legislative Session. The Alaska Redistricting Board's plans could affect their Senate seats.

The Alaska Redistricting Board is planning to guarantee Southeast Alaska will no longer have three state Senate seats, but it also ensured the region won’t drop below two senators.

For the last 10 years, Southeast has had three of the 20 members of the Senate, despite lately having a population that barely justified two.

Currently, those are Sens. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon.

The decision also ensures that two of those politicians will have to run against each other, and based on the lines the board has drawn that tentatively means veteran legislators Stedman and Kookesh will face each other.

The plan is expected to be challenged in court however, and a judge will likely draw final lines, several observers said.

“I’m not concerned about redistricting, I’m going to run for re-election regardless,” Stedman said.

Kookesh was traveling and unavailable for comment, but earlier said he expected such an outcome.

The population centers in the district in which his hometown of Angoon has been located are Sitka and Ketchikan, both of which Stedman already represents.

Speaking earlier in the year to the Native Issues Forum, Kookesh said Alaska’s partisan redistricting process, with a board made up of four Republicans and one non-partisan member might give him a district in which he couldn’t win re-election.

“If that happens, its time for me to ride off into the sunset,” Kookesh said, noting that he’d already served 16 years in the Legislature.

Each of the state’s Senate seats represents two House districts, and Southeast’s population loss relative to the rest of the state leaves it with only enough population to justify four districts in the region.

What the board has yet to decide formally is what’s called the “pairing,” deciding which two House districts will be combined to make a Senate seat.

The region’s geography may help decide that answer, however. Each seat is supposed to, as much as possible, represent a community of common interests. That’s widely expected to mean the two House districts in Juneau would make up a Senate seat, as they do now.

In discussions over the last week, however, board members said they intended to abandon an earlier plan they had brought forward that called for non-contiguous pairings.

One of their early proposals paired a Ketchikan House seat with one in Kodiak to make up a very widely separated Senate district.

Were the board to pair two Southeast House districts with districts elsewhere, it is possible the region could wind up with only a single senator, though it might also wind up with three.

Stedman said he didn’t know if the Board’s plan for placing Petersburg in a district with downtown Juneau meets the community of interest standard, and the current proposed districts might not withstand a court challenge.

“Juneau is more of a government town while Petersburg is more of a private-industry town,” he said.

He discounted the Redistricting Board’s justification of linking the two communities by saying both were fishing towns.

He said he’d prefer Petersburg was kept with Sitka while possibly Haines and Skagway were made part of Juneau districts.

“I represent the community, and I like the community values” of Petersburg, he said. The Stedmans have had a house there since 1914, he said.

The Redistricting Board plans to continue near daily meetings before its June 14 deadline for releasing a final plan. The meetings are in Anchorage, but audio from the meetings is streamed live at www.alaskakegislature.tv.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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