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Youngest lawmaker making national name

Sitka's freshman democrat, Republican House Majority Leader recognized

Posted: May 25, 2014 - 12:08am
  JAMES POULSON
JAMES POULSON

The odds seemed impossible. Few political pundits around the state were even talking about the House District 34 race between an established Republican on the powerful finance committee and a young, up-start Democrat challenger in a Republican-controlled state.

Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins rose to the challenge and unseated the incumbent by a mere 32 votes.

“I filed to run only after doing my political diligence and after knowing that I could win,” Kreiss-Tomkins, 25, said. “I had precisely zero interest in being a sacrificial lamb led to electoral slaughter.”

His intentional planning carried over into his first term, and it caught the attention of national political observers. Kreiss-Tomkins, along with Anchorage Republican Lance Pruitt, the House Majority Leader, were recently named to the Washington Post’s “Top 40 under 40” list of rising political stars.

“Shows you where the Washington Post’s standards are if they’re including a yahoo like me,” Kreiss-Tomkins joked with the Empire.

His personable demeanor is likely what helped propel his upset victory in 2012. Kreiss-Tomkins traveled the region to meet with voters and talk about what was important to them. The approach was well received by his future constituents, who regularly opened their homes to the traveling statehouse-hopeful.

Gathering input from those he sought to represent was critically important, given why Kreiss-Tomkins is involved with politics.

“I’ve always seen politics as a way to make the world, or at least our small part of the world, a better place,” he said. “I’ve been involved for a good while, but always behind the scenes and working for others.”

Once he secured a position of influence and policy-making — even if only as a freshman democrat in a heavily Republican-controlled Legislature — Kreiss-Tomkins wasted no time. Well after midnight on the last scheduled day of the 2014 session (ultimately, lawmakers adjourned five days after their deadline), a Kreiss-Tomkins-sponsored bill making 20 Alaska Native languages “official” state languages passed the Legislature.

The bill became a symbol of civic involvement with dozens of Alaska Natives and other supporters “sitting in” on the Legislature for more than 15 hours before their bill was voted on by the Senate.

“The Native languages bill was monumental, historic, and hugely inspiring,” Kriess-Tomkins said.

Still, he refused to take full-credit for the bill that seemed unlikely to pass at times as the session wound down.

“...It wasn’t ‘my’ bill,” Kriess-Tomkins said in an email. “I own it as much as my colleagues who also worked hand-in-hand on its passage and most of all the hundreds of people across Alaska who petitioned their Legislature for its passage.

“It was a collective achievement,” he added. “It was ‘our’ bill.”

The freshman lawmaker also was able get a bill passed that recognizes Nov. 14 each year as “Dr. Walter Soboleff Day.” He says getting things accomplished in a body controlled by his peers across the political aisle is about finding common ground.

“I try to think of politics as a Venn diagram,” he explained. “If you look at Democrats and Republicans and rural and urban legislators, even though we differ on some issues, there are huge areas of overlap, and heaps of innovative, legitimately good ideas within that overlap. I try to live in and legislate from that overlap.

“I believe in a politics of collaboration and bipartisanship.”

Just don’t expect this “Top 40 under 40” lawmaker to be aiming for statewide office anytime soon. When asked about the idea, he didn’t leave much doubt that he is content representing his region.

His response: “Please, stop the comedy!”

• Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 523-2243 or at matthew.woolbright@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reportermatt.

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