Juneau Color: Riding out the redistricting storm

Gordon Harrison is at the helm as the state redraws its election districts

Posted: Friday, March 09, 2001

Today could be the last weekday of what Gordon Harrison calls "the calm before the storm."

As of Monday, when the U.S. Census Bureau may release Alaska demographic data for 2000, Harrison is prepared to go into overdrive in his position as executive director to the Alaska Redistricting Board.

The board has 30 days after the data's release to come up with at least one potential map for new legislative districts, a frenzy that states go through every 10 years to account for shifts in population. The final plan must come within 60 days after the draft.

Harrison, 57, who retired from state government several years ago, stepped back in to assume one of the most intense positions facing a public servant in Alaska this year.

"What we're trying to do is do the legal thing - the right thing and the legal thing - because there are parties poised on both sides to sue us from the very beginning," he said this week. When it's over, "I hope to return to anonymity and retirement bliss and contentment."

Redistricting board member Michael Lessmeier, a Juneau attorney, said he's glad Harrison is heading up the five-person staff, which works in makeshift quarters on Willoughby Avenue.

"I think Gordon is a brilliant individual," he said. "To be able to get somebody of Gordon's caliber to do this kind of job on a short-term basis - I think we're fortunate to have him. ...

"Gordon is willing to educate himself. He's willing to dive in and learn the details of new issues. He's then able to explain those details to others."

A state constitutional scholar who was on the political science faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks before heading up the nonpartisan Legislative Research Agency in Juneau from 1989-95, Harrison has not been involved in a redistricting before. "We've had to learn a whole new vocabulary," he said.

He was the first staff member hired last fall, and for two months, working out of a legislator's office, he was the only one. When the office space became available in mid-December, he found a stained carpet, damaged fixtures and no furniture. "We had to refurnish this whole thing out of administrative surplus."

This week, computer consultants were in making further adjustments to the board's programs.

Perhaps symbolic of the expected chaos, Harrison and his staff, along with other state officials around the nation, waited for half an hour on a national teleconference hookup Tuesday to hear an announcement by the U.S. Commerce Department, only to discover that they never got patched in while the news conference was going on.

The announcement itself turned out to be bad news. The Bush administration decided it would not adjust the final count to make up for people missed in last year's survey. That meant the release of final numbers would begin right away, well ahead of the April 1 deadline in federal law. As soon as the information arrives on compact discs in Alaska, the redistricting board has just over four weeks to assemble a plan.

"There's still a lot of work to do before we start to draw districts," Harrison said. A board meeting that had been scheduled for next Wednesday was supposed to concern only basic procedures, not actual number-crunching, he said.

To prepare for the coming task, Harrison has immersed himself in history and legal opinions.

He noted that the redistricting board faces sometimes conflicting pressures: According to state legal standards, legislative districts must be drawn compactly, with two contiguous House districts making up each Senate district.

Meanwhile, federal standards call for minimal deviation from the ideal district population, based upon on the "one man, one vote" U.S. Supreme Court decision. In Alaska, the ideal House district will have an estimated 15,673 residents, up from 13,751 in the final redistricting after the 1990 census.

Minority voting strength can't be diluted, according to federal standards, but neither can maintaining minority districts be the overriding criteria for how lines are drawn, according to the high court. That's relevant to how Natives are allocated among districts, which the U.S. Department of Justice is expected to watch closely. Harrison said that for the first time there could be a lawsuit under the federal Voting Rights Act because of the mathematical challenge of maintaining Native majority and Native "influence" districts even while accounting for the population shift from rural areas to urban areas.

Harrison had been enjoying relative solitude. After leaving the Legislative Research Agency, he began building a house on Thunder Bay on Admiralty Island. An accomplished woodworker and contributing writer to a woodworking magazine, he took up ceramics, as well. The location has been good for deer hunting and fishing, as well as bear viewing.

"It was a really wonderful time" for his family, he said. "Our life at home, with me not working, became a very human existence. ... It also gets a little solitary. After five years, I was thinking it was time to get back and work with people."

The job at the redistricting board also has the advantage of not being permanent. In about 90 days, he expects to be done with full-time work, although the board will remain in existence until any legal challenges are resolved.

"I want to do some fishing this summer," he said. "What I really hope is nobody sues us."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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