Who's the biggest clown at the Capitol?

Web site gathers funds to oust lawmakers; organizer feels heat

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2000

Those who consider the Legislature a circus can now pick their cast of characters for the center ring. So far the elephants are the main attraction, but the ringmaster is hearing some boos.

Robert Gottstein, chairman of the state Board of Education, has set up a Web site and political action committee called The Alaska Circus in which citizens can vote for the top five ``clowns'' in the state Legislature.

It costs $10 to cast a vote and the money will be used to help opponents of the top five in this fall's election.

But Gottstein may be the one who loses his job.

Editorials in the Anchorage Daily News and the Voice of the Times have called for him to step down from the Board of Education. Part of their reasoning is that calling legislators clowns hurts Gottstein's ability to advocate for education in the Legislature.

Even if he doesn't resign, Gottstein may lose the job since his term on the board has expired. If Gov. Tony Knowles reappoints Gottstein, he'll have to be confirmed by the same legislators vying for clownship on his Web page.

In an interview from Anchorage last week, Gottstein said he doesn't plan to resign. But, he added with a laugh, ``I can't describe the length of my tenure.''

Gottstein said he's personally frustrated with the Legislature not providing the tools to make public education work well. ``I guess my general premise is we're destroying our public school system. I say we're managing the rate of decay.''

He believes others share his frustration with legislators over various issues. Part of his aim was to give ordinary people an opportunity to influence elections.

``What I've attempted to do here is popularize people's ability to enter the world of politics in an easy and affordable manner for people,'' Gottstein said. ``Clearly there are people who are unhappy with that because they like the status quo.''

This is the way the site works. Call up www.thealaskacircus.com and you'll find the following greeting: ``Come one, come all! For only $10 you can vote for which clown you want out of the Legislature.''

Also on the site you'll find names and photos of all legislators, Republican and Democrat, who are up for election this year. Those who have already said they're not seeking reelection aren't included. Nor are senators whose terms don't expire this year.

Citizens can cast a vote for the legislator or legislators they like the least. Each vote costs $10, paid by credit card.

The money goes to The Alaska Circus political action committee. Individuals can donate up to $500 to a political action committee, which means they can vote 50 times.

On April 1, the votes will be tallied and the money raised will be used to help defeat the top five vote-getters.

As of Saturday afternoon Palmer Rep. Scott Ogan was leading the pack with 51 votes. Rounding out the Top Five were: Wasilla Rep. Vic Kohring with 45 votes, Anchorage Sen. Jerry Ward with 42, Anchorage Rep. Ramona Barnes with 32 and Anchorage Sen. Loren Leman with 19.

So far all legislators who have received at least one clown vote are Republicans.

Gottstein is a Democrat as are other members of the committee, but Gottstein said the site's not intended to be partisan. He asked some Republicans to be on the committee but they declined, he said.

Ogan defends Gottstein's free-speech right to do the Web site, but he agrees with the editorial writers who state it may have been an unwise decision.

``One has to question his judgment of being an appointed state official and being antagonistic toward the hand that feeds education,'' Ogan said.

Leman said calling legislators clowns just increases the public's cynicism toward government. ``I think it's inappropriate for someone like Robert Gottstein to do this site,'' he said.

It also sets a bad example for children, Ogan said. ``I teach my children that name-calling is done by immature bullies.''

Ogan, however, is not too upset by topping the site's clown list. He figures the site's voters are liberal Democrats, anyway, and if he's their ``public enemy number one,'' that's fine.

``I've been called a lot worse since I've been in the Legislature,'' he said. ``I've been called a racist, a communist ... a Nazi. So clown's kind of mellow.''

Bob King, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, said the governor hasn't ventured an opinion on the Web site.

``I think it would be inappropriate for the state to tell someone, a private citizen, what they can or can't do in their private lives,'' King said. A decision has not yet been made on whether Gottstein will be reappointed to the Education Board, he said.

Legally, the political action committee's methods are fine, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

``Basically they're getting up to $500 from individuals and that's what a PAC can do,'' said Therese Greene, group coordinator at APOC. ``They've been working with us in how they've set things up. As far as I know right now, they've been following the guidelines.''

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