As a pilot for FedEx, Mike Shower is used to picking up a bag and jetting out on a moment’s notice. He keeps one packed with clothes, toiletries, and anything else he needs to stay in a place for a week or two.
Last weekend, Shower picked up his traveling bag and jetted off to Juneau for a new job. On Monday, he was sworn in as the Legislature’s newest senator, replacing Mike Dunleavy of Wasilla.
In his bag, he packed a pair of new suits and other things he thought he would need in Juneau. He didn’t pack ice cleats, and that oversight — as he told the Empire in a Thursday interview, led to a quick welcome from Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.
“Monday night, so my first night out of the building, it was late, again like 10 o’clock at night. So I was walking back to the Baranof from here. I made it out the front steps and down to the corner, and I hit a patch of ice and I had my nice dress shoes on … so boom, I went right to the ground with my bag,” he said.
Coincidentally, on the opposite side of the intersection, was Jesse Kiehl, aide to Egan, who rushed over to make sure Shower was OK.
“Next day, what shows up here but a card from Sen. Egan on a pair of YakTrax and it says something to the effect of … ‘Welcome to Juneau. Glad you slid into town.’”
This year in the Alaska Legislature, Shower isn’t the only person getting his feet under him. In January, Rep. John Lincoln, D-Kotzebue, replaced Dean Westlake in representing House District 40. On Friday, Tiffany Zulkosky will replace Zach Fansler in House District 38.
While these replacements make up only 5 percent of the Legislature’s 60 members, the tight margins in the House and Senate means the new arrivals will have critical roles to play as the state grapples with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. In the Senate, Shower has not yet decided whether he will join the 13-member majority. That majority is two members shy of the critical supermajority needed to spend from the Constitutional Budget Reserve that will help balance the budget this year.
In the House, the coalition House Majority has only 22 members, just one more than the bare minimum majority of 21 required to pass legislation.
Last week, with Zulkosky not yet sworn in and Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, absent due to illness, the majority had to delay a vote on the critical fast-track budget bill that will keep the Alaska Marine Highway System operating past April. (It wasn’t clear whether the minority would support the bill, and House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, didn’t want to gamble.)
In addition to coping with the titanic issues facing with the state, the three new lawmakers have to deal with changes in their personal lives. Each has abandoned a job, family and friends to unexpectedly come to Juneau for what’s likely to be an extended stay.
“It is a really disruptive thing personally, but I’m getting a lot of support from other people to make it achievable,” Lincoln said.
He, his 2 1/2-year-old daughter and the girl’s mother packed up and moved from Kotzebue to Juneau in January, soon after the session began. The weather was a big change, but the biggest change was something personal.
“The biggest change, I think, personally, is Kotzebue is my hometown. It’s a place where I know everyone and everyone knows me,” he said.
He occasionally gets recognized in Juneau grocery stores, but he’s lost a lot of connections and is trying to make up for them in other ways.
“I’ve really doubled down on faith and prayer and leaned on that even more than I normally do,” he said.
He makes it a point to take one day off a week and get out of the Capitol to clear his head. He’s hiked to the Mendenhall Glacier with his family and has been to Eaglecrest Ski Area.
Shower, only a week into his Capitol experience, hasn’t had the chance to catch his breath. He’s working 15-hour days, he said, and trying to climb a learning curve that resembles a cliff.
His wife has remained in Wasilla, and his youngest child, 17, is graduating high school this spring.
“There’s part of me that misses home a lot and the nice, quiet life I had before,” he said, but added that he feels a sense of duty and responsibility to do the best job that he can.
That sense of duty and obligation is something all three of the new legislators said they feel.
Zulkosky, who arrives in Juneau this week, said she’s trying to keep in mind that even when she’s in the Capitol, it’s as if she’s working at home.
“You know, I feel having grown up in, and born and raised in the region, I feel very interwoven into our community. Any work I’ve done in my career always kind of ties back to my community and making sure that we can be as strong as they can be. So I think it’s exciting,” she said.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.