The Alaska Redistricting Board has pitted two local Republican representatives against each other, but denounced an Alaska Supreme Court ruling it said required that.
The newly drawn district would extend Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley House district north to include Haines and Skagway, as well as Gustavus.
That area is already represented both by Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, and Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines. They now would now have to decide by June 1 whether to file to run against each other in the August Republican primary.
The move left both of the prominent Republicans dismayed, and Thomas “semi-depressed.”
The board met Monday morning in Anchorage and by teleconference to meet a Supreme Court deadline of Tuesday at noon for filing of the latest plan.
Thomas is one of the Legislature’s most powerful members as co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, and comes from a district that has elected, and re-elected him by increasing margins.
Now, he’s in a district made up almost completely of Muñoz’ current district. Thomas estimated that the new district contains about 3,000 residents from his current district in Haines, Skagway and Gustavus, while being made up of roughly 13,000 from Juneau, mostly in the Mendenhall Valley.
Last year, no one even contested Muñoz’ re-election bid.
Thomas said he’s disappointed the board didn’t seek to maintain a Native district.
“It’s kind of disappointing to think the villages will be broken up and we’ll lose the voice from the villages,” he said.
Muñoz said she agreed the plan appeared to limit Native influence, and questioned whether it would face challenges from Alaska Native organizations or the federal Department of Justice.
“I was surprised, to be honest with you,” Muñoz said of the new Southeast districts. “There was no mention of Southeast until a couple of days ago.”
She said it “wasn’t pleasant” to find out she might have to run against Thomas to keep her seat.
“Bill and I get along very well, we have a great working relationship,” she said, but all the Southeast representatives work together to look out for the entire region.
The board’s action was driven by an Alaska Supreme Court order that told it to consider the Alaska Constitution’s requirements for legislative districts, and disregard the federal Voting Rights Act requirement to maximize Native voting influence to the maximum extent possible.
Thomas is Native, and his current district, made up of several of Southeast and Interior Native communities, stretches through Southeast.
Petersburg is now excluded from the Juneau-based district and would now get its wish to instead be paired up with neighbors Wrangell and Sitka.
Redistricting board member PeggyAnn McConnochie called the map the board adopted “abhorrent,” but said the board had no choice giving the Supreme Court’s order.
“The Alaska Supreme Court has told us to do something which I don’t think it right or reasonable,” she said.
The Alaska Constitution required districts be drawn that are contiguous, compact and are similar socio-economically.
The new district meets all those criteria, but now faces increased risk of failing to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice because its doesn’t meet the Voting Rights Act requirements for maximizing Native voting influence.
“I feel caught between a rock and a hard place,” McConnochie said.
Event though the plan may not meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, it will get past the Alaska Supreme Court, she said.
“I don’t believe this map will serve Southeast well,” she said.
Board member Bob Brodie of Kodiak said the court “didn’t so Southeast any favors” by forcing adoption of a plan he called “short-sighted.”
The Supreme Court has set a deadline of May 18 for further appeals, which are likely, some board members and others said.
Thomas said he’ll continue to explore his options as details of the redistricting firm up, but they may include running for re-election as a Republican, retiring, or changing his registration to independent and possibly running in the general election but facing Muñoz in a primary.
The latest redistricting plan doesn’t change Senate match-ups, with Republican Bert Stedman of Sitka and Democrat Albert Kookesh of Angoon now in the same district, one made up mostly of Stedman’s current district.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.