Gaining a Voice

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2008

A perfect combination of candidates and timing has made Alaska a player in presidential politics like never before.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

This week Alaska will participate in Super Tuesday, when the largest number of states hold their presidential primaries and caucuses.

In the past, Alaska Democrats picked their candidates in March and Republicans selected them in May. This is the first year that Alaska has been a part of Super Tuesday, giving politically aligned Alaskans the chance to weigh in on presidential candidates while it matters.

At the same time, both parties have helped boost interest by keeping their races competitive into February, with at least two well-matched candidates in both the Democratic and Republican races.

"I've never seen this much interest," said Rich Listowski, a former national committeeman for the Democratic Party.

Even former President Bill Clinton is getting involved in Alaska. Juneau's Cindy Spanyers, an Alaska Public Employees Association official, got a 15-minute phone call from Clinton on the day of the South Carolina primary, urging her to support New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.

"I don't get calls from the president every day," Spanyers said.

She is what's known as a "superdelegate," one of a handful of delegates who don't have to be elected and are going to the convention automatically because of their party positions.

One of Alaska's four superdelegates had already pledged support for Clinton, while another has pledged for rival Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Spanyers has remained uncommitted and in demand.

"Alaska is definitely in the forefront in helping chose our party's nominee," she said.

For separate reasons, that's putting Juneau and Alaska in unusually important positions this year.

Alaskans vote Republican by an almost 2-1 margin, giving the state surprising national influence, said Ben Brown, a Republican Party leader in Juneau.

"We're a very important state, despite our relatively small population," he said.

Alaska's Republican domination is shown in the number of national delegates it gets, he said. When the convention is held later this year in Minneapolis, Alaska will have more delegates than the much bigger Connecticut, he said. That's because the proportion of Republicans in Alaska is higher than that in Connecticut. The 49th state benefits from this high proportion in the complicated formula used to calculate the number of delegates.

"We want to play as big a role as possible in selecting our party's nominee," Brown said.

Republican Gov. Sarah Palin hasn't endorsed any candidate, but that's only increased her prominence.

"She did get a call from Mike Huckabee this week," said Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow.

Palin was happy to hear of the former Arkansas governor's support for important Alaska issues such as developing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but still isn't making an endorsement, Leighow said.

"She looks forward to a similar discussion with the other candidates," he said.

Heavily Democratic Juneau plays a similarly prominent role in Democratic Party politics within Alaska.

Juneau will elect 38 delegates to the state party convention, the highest number in the state on a per capita basis, said Kim Metcalfe, local party chairman.

Delegates are allocated by state House district, based on the proportion of Democratic vote in the last gubernatorial election. Juneau's downtown district has 21 delegates, the highest in the state, while the Mendenhall Valley district has 17, the second-highest in the state.

The specifics of how both parties award delegates means that heavily Democratic Juneau gives the capital city disproportionate power within state party politics.

Activists with both parties are thrilled with Alaska's newfound importance.

Obama has even opened a campaign office in Alaska with a paid staffer organizing voters. Last week the campaign's Alaska representative visited Juneau to organize Obama supporters locally.

"It's amazing that we have paid staff in Alaska," Listowski said. "I don't ever remember that before."

Obama and Republican candidate Ron Paul, a Texas congressman, have taken to the airwaves in the Anchorage area with radio spots, while Republican Mitt Romney's son Josh just visited Alaska as part of the campaign for his father, former Massachusetts governor.

Obama's Alaska staffer was trying to organize volunteers for a strong caucus showing Tuesday, while Juneau Assembly member Bob Doll recently did the same for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Each party is encouraging as many voters as possible to come to their Super Tuesday event. To play a role, voters need to be members of either the Democratic or Republican parties, or be willing to re-register Tuesday.

The Alaska Democratic Caucus is similar to that in Iowa, Metcalfe said.

Supporters of various candidates will go to different corners of the room to be counted, she said. The Obama camp will likely have signs, while the Clinton supporters will be wearing "Hillary" T-shirts, and both will be encouraging others to join them.

The Republican process is quite different, and will be done with paper ballots, said Randy Ruedrich, Republican Party chairman for the state.

"We have a very, very proper secret ballot process," he said. "There's no intimidation. Everybody gets to vote their free will."

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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