New maps shuffle SE districts

Changes would affect 2002 election

Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2001

Rep. Albert Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat, and Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Wrangell Republican, would be thrown into the same House district under a draft plan for new state legislative boundaries.

At the same time, Sitka, Haines, Skagway, Yakutat and Cordova would be joined together in a House seat with no incumbent.

The Alaska Redistricting Board has generated two draft plans and also accepted two competing legislative maps from Native groups. Juneau's districts are not greatly affected by any of the plans.

The five-member board on Wednesday met a state constitutional deadline, which called for at least one draft plan within 30 days after the release of U.S. Census data for Alaska. But while the board tentatively has made conceptual decisions, detailed maps of its own proposals aren't yet available.

The decision to adopt multiple plans for public comment was practical, rather than a policy choice, said Executive Director Gordon Harrison. "I think the board realized it just didn't have enough information to make definitive judgments about certain lines."

A final plan and map must be adopted by the board no later than June 17, allowing for 60 days of public comment beforehand. Public hearings around the state are scheduled to start about May 1.

If not delayed by court challenges, the final redistricting plan would be in place for 2002 House and Senate elections. But Harrison said people already are "sharpening their knives."

The board came up with two overall variations on a new state map for the 40 House districts and 20 Senate districts. The task is to create compact, contiguous and socio-economically integrated districts and in each case to come as close as possible to the "ideal" House district population of 15,673, while matching contiguous House districts to make up Senate districts.

While there are alternatives proposed by the board for Anchorage and the Interior, the board-generated maps are identical for Southeast, and that portion was approved unanimously, said board chairwoman Vicki Otte of Anchorage.

The Southeast draft plan would terminate the so-called Iceworm district, House District 5, which consists of three dozen small communities from Metlakatla to Yakutat. The winding shape of that underpopulated district, represented by Kookesh, isn't compatible with the requirement that districts should be compact and contiguous, said board member Michael Lessmeier of Juneau.

Instead, the draft plan would remove Haines, Skagway and Yakutat from the Iceworm district, and would add Wrangell and Petersburg, now paired with Sitka, to it. House District 5 is "a Native influence district," a category that means special attention from the U.S. Department of Justice, but the Native population would drop only slightly, from 39 percent to 36 percent, Lessmeier said.

But Kookesh called the plan "crazy." Wrangell and Petersburg, now represented by Wilson, would become the power base of the district, leaving the villages with vastly diminished political power, he said. Currently, there is no population center in the district.

The 1998 constitutional amendment shifting redistricting authority from the governor to the new board was intended to "depoliticize" the process. But Kookesh said if the new Southeast lines stand, he would be personally depoliticized. "It effectively pushes me out of the race because the big communities control."

Wilson, who would drop Sitka and pick up numerous villages if she was re-elected, said she's "shocked" by the plan. "I really felt that even though Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, the personalities are different, they have the same governmental structure." The cultural gap between those cities and the villages is large, she said.

Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, called the proposal "bizarre," particularly because Klukwan, a Native village near the City of Haines, would remain in the wholly Southeast district, while Haines would be joined with the Southcentral community of Cordova. Klukwan could be represented by someone from Wrangell and Haines by someone from Sitka, he noted.

"That (map) would disrupt the Senate district enough that I'd have to run again," said Taylor, who was elected to a four-year term last fall. A significant change in the Senate boundaries would require him to stand for election next year, possibly forcing him to forego another candidacy for governor. Taylor said he thinks that's the intent of a Democrat-leaning majority on the board.

The new Sitka-to-Cordova district, meanwhile, would be paired with a Kenai Peninsula House district to form a Senate district, Lessmeier said. Bill Thomas, a former Haines Borough assemblyman and Capitol lobbyist, said Haines is better off under the current pairing with a Kodiak-based district because of the shared interest in fisheries.

In Juneau, there is only one proposed change, eliminating Cube Cove from the Senate district, Lessmeier said. Otherwise, the downtown-based and Mendenhall Valley-based House seats would remain unchanged, he said.

Divisions on the Redistricting Board were apparent in the decisions to adopt draft plans from the Calista Regional Native Corp., based in Bethel, and a Native coalition called Alaskans For Fair Redistricting.

There were 3-2 votes on adopting both plans, with Julian Mason of Anchorage as the swing vote supporting both. Mason, Otte and Leona Okakok of Barrow are considered Democratic appointees, while Lessmeier and Bert Sharp of Fairbanks were appointed by Republican legislators. Otte and Okakok supported the AFFR plan, while Lessmeier and Sharp then urged similar treatment for the Calista plan.

Otte opposed the Calista plan because it would force two Native senators, Democrats Donald Olson of Nome and Georgianna Lincoln of Rampart, into the same district. The board's attorney will research whether such a scenario is legally permissible. In general, board members say they aren't considering how redistricting proposals affect incumbents.

Bill McAllister can be reached at

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