Natives losing political influence

Regional leaders try to stem decline with support for strong census count

Posted: Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Federal Voting Rights Act provisions aimed at ensuring representation of Alaska Natives in the Legislature may not be enough to stem the slide in Native political influence driven by this year's census.

Redistricting based on the ongoing 2010 U.S. Census is likely to shift more of the state's political power to its growing urban areas, as it has with each decennial census since statehood, redistricting experts say.

"People are leaving the villages and it's really scary to me to watch that," said Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon.

Without adequate representation in the Legislature, those remaining in places such as Kake and Hoonah will have less ability to influence their futures, and even more resources and development is likely to go elsewhere, he said.

Kookesh's district is the largest in the nation, a vast region that is nearly the size of Texas and spans the state. It begins at Metlakatla in extreme Southeast Alaska, stretches through the panhandle's mostly small, mostly Native communities north through Yakatut and into the Interior. In Southeast, it skips the population centers of Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka.

As the state's population shifts to the cities, especially in the fast-growing Mat-Su area, the next redistricting is expected to shift about three legislators from rural areas to Southcentral.

In response, some rural representatives and senators are proposing increasing the size of the body. A bill in the House would add six seats; a companion bill in the Senate would add 12 seats.

Neither would change the overall balance of power, which would still be based on the principle of one person, one vote.

A redistricting option available elsewhere - one that expands city-based districts out into rural areas - is likely not available in Alaska because the federal Voting Rights Act requires communities of interest, such as rural Native areas, be kept together to ensure their ability to elect legislators who will represent their interests.

What the expansion bills do accomplish is to make districts physically smaller than they would be otherwise.

The prospect of a bigger district is troubling to Kookesh, who already finds it difficult to reach much of his district.

Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said she knows what's that's like. After the last census, her district expanded to include Pelican, Port Alexander, Baranof Warm Springs, Kupreanof and Elfin Cove.

"It's very, very difficult to campaign," she said. "The one time I went to Port Alexander, I had to charter a plane. It cost me a thousand dollars."

Another time, Wilson was stuck in Pelican for three days when weather forced flight cancelations. Now, she plans her trips to Pelican with a flight in, but relies on the ferry to leave.

Wilson has less than a dozen communities in her district, Kookesh has 137.

A law designed for the South

Alaska currently has three senate districts, each comprised of two House districts, designed to have a healthy, if not majority, Native influence.

That focus on creating voting districts based around Native communities of interest is a result of the Voting Rights Act, a law originally created decades ago to make sure that newly enfranchised African-American voters in the Deep South.

"Alaska's past record is not dissimilar from the discrimination that has been observed in the southern states," said Tom Begich, a redistricting expert who worked on the state's 2000 effort to redraw districts. He is a brother to U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and son of the late U.S. Rep. Nick Begich.

The Voting Rights Act doesn't require that the Native districts have a majority of Native voters, but enough that they'll have a propensity to elect candidates who would support rural and Native interests.

Native legislators have often used Alaska's coalition politics to magnify their smaller numbers, Begich said.

"Alaska Native leaders, though mostly elected Democrat, tend to be fairly flexible in terms of coalition politics," he said.

That's the way it is working in the Legislature today, Kookesh said.

"The rights of the minority are pretty well protected by the two coalitions, more so in the Senate," said Kookesh, a member of governing Senate Working Group.

Alaska's urban shift may wind up with fewer Native legislators after this year's census documents the past decade's movement.

That's likely to mean fewer Native legislative districts as three rural districts shift to the populous Southcentral area, redistricting experts say.

That is, unless the Legislature is expanded, said Gordon Harrison, executive director of Alaska Redistricting Commission in 2000.

"With the expansion, you'd still have nine rural Native districts; otherwise you'd have six," Harrison told the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month.

Every census since statehood has resulted in a shift of legislators from rural Alaska to the cities when the subsequent redistricting came.

"When they made that change, every single time, all of the districts in the rural areas have gotten bigger," Wilson said.

That's certain to happen again.

"For example, Al Kookesh's district is now almost the size of Texas. If we don't make any changes, it will get bigger," Wilson said.

Much of the reason the rural Alaska population is stagnant, and falling in relation to Southcentral, is the migration of rural residents to bigger cities.

Kookesh notes that the biggest "Native village" in Alaska is now Anchorage; In Southeast it is Juneau. In the 2000 Census, Anchorage had a Native population of 15,000, while Juneau's was 3,200.

In some cities elsewhere in the nation it is possible to group minority urban neighborhoods together to create majority minority districts, but Alaska Natives living in cities have not grouped together in large enough districts to do that, Begich said.

"There are probably some concentrations (of Native voters) in some urban areas, but it would require some very strange gerrymandering to make them into a district," he said.

Native leaders have also been active in working to see that tribal members, historically difficult to count fully, don't get missed this year.

Efforts to boost U.S. Census count

Sealaska Corp. executive Katherine Eldemar is co-chairing Juneau's census committee. The group is trying to garner the most complete count possible and make sure the city gets the full amount of funds based on population counts in the next 10 years.

Eldemar is making sure Native community leaders know how important a complete count is.

"The census data will also dictate how the state of Alaska will reapportion and who will get representation in the Legislature," she told a gathering at the ANB Hall recently.

An accurate count will mean additional educational and job opportunities, as well as political representation for the next decade, Eldemar said.

"It is imperative that we get out and talk to our community, or family, our co-workers, she said.

Expansion of the Legislature will take a constitutional amendment. Both Wilson's bill in the House and a related bill in the Senate - sponsored the Community and Regional Affairs Committee that is chaired by Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome - have been moving. They require a two-thirds vote in each legislative body, and then a vote of the people to change the Alaska Constitution.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at

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