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In Juneau politics, Douglas Island looms large

Residents have held office of mayor since 1994

Posted: November 15, 2012 - 1:09am  |  Updated: November 15, 2012 - 4:57pm
The Douglas Bridge is the only connection to Douglas Island from the mainland.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
The Douglas Bridge is the only connection to Douglas Island from the mainland.

When Mayor Merrill Sanford took office last month, he became the fifth consecutive mayor of the City and Borough of Juneau to hail from an island that was incorporated into Juneau within the adult lifetime of all five of them.

Douglas Island became entirely part of the City and Borough of Juneau in 1970, when what were then the City of Juneau and the City of Douglas were consolidated together with the Greater Juneau Borough.

That was the same year Dennis Egan moved to the island.

“I think that a lot of people that live on the island have a real sense of community, and a lot of folks on the island want to get involved, you know, either on a board or on a commission,” said Egan. “There are always a lot of Douglas people that want to get involved.”

Egan served on the CBJ Planning Commission, then the CBJ Assembly. He became mayor in 1995, after the resignation of then-Mayor Byron Mallott, who was the first in the string of recent Juneau mayors from Douglas Island.

Today, Egan is Juneau’s state senator, though he still resides in West Juneau ­— which, unlike downtown Douglas, was considered part of Juneau even prior to the CBJ’s incorporation — with his family. Another Juneau legislator, Rep. Beth Kerttula, lives in North Douglas.

Egan puzzled over the question of why Douglas Island, which represents slightly more than one-sixth of Juneau’s total population, has had such an outsized contribution to city politics.

“I never even thought of that very much,” Egan said. “I don’t have a clue.”

Newly minted Assemblymember Loren Jones hails from West Juneau as well. Mallott is one of his neighbors.

“I think population-wise, I think people on Douglas Island tend to stay here,” said Jones, who noted that many houses in his area have been passed down within families. He himself has lived on Douglas Island since 1975. “I think it’s more stable. I think more people in this area tend to be less of the people who come in and out. … Tends to be more old-time families.”

Jones added, “Running for office, you know, sort of being in leadership roles in the community … you look at the longevity of living in Juneau.”

Jones ran last year against now-Assemblymember Carlton Smith, a real estate agent who lives in the same neighborhood as Egan and Sanford. Assemblymember Mary Becker, who used to teach at Gastineau Community School in Douglas, lives nearby.

Sanford grew up on Basin Road in downtown Juneau. In his adult life, he spent about 20 years living at the 18-mile mark with his wife Patti.

“After that, we moved back into town,” Sanford said. They chose West Juneau because after living out the road, he said, “I wasn’t going to move into a place where I couldn’t see what was going on on the water.”

The Sanfords have lived on Douglas Island, where Patti grew up, for close to 20 years now.

“I think the people of Douglas are very active and always have been,” said Sanford, noting that many families that live on the island have roots there going back 120 years. “I just think that they’re all interested in what is happening in our community, and they get out and vote.”

Even if Sanford, who was elected by a margin of nine percentage points in last month’s municipal election, had lost the mayoral race, a Douglas Island resident would be mayor. Cheryl Jebe, Sanford’s opponent in the race, lives in North Douglas.

Douglas historian Tony McCormick thinks Douglas Island has fielded so many figures in city politics because, he asserted, “It’s a nicer community, you know, and you don’t have the long drive if you’re working in Juneau and doing business in Juneau.”

The Assembly is set up to ensure some degree of broad representation.

While three Assembly seats, including the mayor, have no geographic restrictions on who can represent them, three seats must be filled by Assemblymembers who live in Assembly District 1, which includes all of Douglas Island as well as downtown Juneau, Lemon Creek and the part of the Mendenhall Valley surrounding Juneau International Airport; and the remaining three are reserved for Assemblymembers from District 2, which covers the remainder of the Valley, plus Auke Bay and Lynn Canal.

But Douglas Island is just one Assemblymember short of a majority on the nine-member Assembly — a rather radical change in Juneau’s political landscape from the pre-1970 period.

Former Mayor Bruce Botelho, who left office last month, resides in downtown Douglas.

In response to the observation that, as he put it, “Douglas Island, that little island in the Pacific, is what runs Juneau,” Botelho said with a smile, “There’s some truth to that.”

Botelho himself succeeded former Mayor Sally Smith, also a Douglas Islander, in 2003. Egan preceded Smith as mayor.

Even since “annexation,” as Egan and many other Douglas Islanders often call the 1970 event that fused Juneau, Douglas and the borough into one entity, Egan said Douglas Island has maintained a strong and cohesive local character.

“There is a real sense of community, still, even though there isn’t a Douglas per se,” said Egan. “Douglas Island considers themselves Douglas, period.”

However, Botelho noted that many of the figures in Juneau politics live on parts of the island that were never part of historic Douglas.

“One who is born and raised here would talk about West Juneau,” Botelho said. “And people’s associations are (that) while they live on Douglas Island, (it) doesn’t necessarily qualify them as Douglasites.”

But in Sanford’s view, the “sense of community” on the island that Egan described has helped fuel Douglas Islanders’ activity in the broader Juneau community.

“They’ve been a part of their community, which was really tight-knit for a long time, and then the vote was to merge all of us together … into a borough,” Sanford said of the longtime Douglas Island residents. Since then, he added, “They just brought forward their interest in community involvement and everything, and that has carried through with the new generations and everything — which is great.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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