Distinguish between political party, people

Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2001

The following editorial was published July 27 in the Anchorage Daily News:

The Anchorage Assembly did the best it could ... (July 24) to distance the city from the redistricting lawsuit Mayor George Wuerch unilaterally decided to join. Once the mayor dragged the city into the court fight, it was nigh impossible for the Assembly, acting on its own, to pull the city out. To deflect criticism, the mayor had already said he'll use no more city resources on the lawsuit. Passing a resolution to that effect, as the Assembly did, turns the mayor's unenforceable promise into official city policy.

Joining a redistricting lawsuit has unavoidable partisan overtones. In the once-a-decade effort to redraw Alaska's legislative districts, nearly every change in boundary lines arguably helps one party or the other.

Those who control the redistricting process try to boost their party's prospects as much as possible, within the limits set by the U.S. and Alaska Constitutions and the federal Voting Rights Act. Those who don't control the process inevitably file suit, in hopes of scaling back their opponents' gains. Inevitably, the courts are called upon to referee the partisans' conflicting claims.

The 1991 plan, controlled by Gov. Wally Hickel, an independent allied with the Republican Party, drew howls from Democrats. Three Anchorage House Democrats were thrown into the same district. Four other Democrats were scrunched into two districts, forcing them to run against a fellow Democrat. Rep. Dave Donley, then a Democrat, saw his political base sliced into four districts and landed in a district with a fellow Democrat and a popular Republican incumbent. Donley called the plan "a political hack job." In the end, Hickel's plan enabled Republicans to win outright control of the state House for the first time since 1968.

Mayor George Wuerch brushes aside complaints that joining this year's Republican-driven redistricting lawsuit is a partisan move. He says he has only the best interests of the city in mind.


The plan he's attacking gives Anchorage control of 17 state House seats. The plan he prefers would strip Anchorage's control of the 17th seat, now shared with Valdez, leaving the city with less legislative power than its population deserves.

Anchorage is entitled to 16.6 state house seats. One district has to be shared with a neighbor. By shifting around district lines in the city for other reasons, and by moving the shared district to Anchorage's northern boundary, the mayor's preferred plan would cede control of the shared district to the Mat-Su area.

It's understandable why Valdez doesn't want to be the tail on an Anchorage dog. It's not clear why the mayor of Anchorage is willing to help Valdez and diminish Anchorage's influence by giving up control of a House seat to Mat-Su.

Mayor Wuerch complains that the plan combines Anchorage's side-by-side military bases into a single district. The district is compact, as constitutionally required. All parts of the district are contiguous, as constitutionally required. The district is thoroughly integrated along socio-economic lines (in this case, the military and adjacent neighborhoods), as constitutionally required. Its population falls well within legal requirements.

So how can it be illegal?

Mayor Wuerch criticizes the Valdez portion of the plan for not being compact and well-integrated and the military base district for being too compact and too well-integrated. He can't have it both ways.

The plan the mayor is attacking draws heavily on community council boundaries to shape Anchorage districts. The mayor's lawsuit provides no legal basis for challenging that feature, except to say he had a better plan. Maybe so, but that's far cry from proving that using community council boundaries somehow violates the Alaska or U.S. constitutions.

Cut through the mayor's superficial arguments and here's what you get:

The plan being attacked by the mayor creates many new districts where incumbent Republicans are forced to run against other incumbent Republicans. Combining the city's two military bases puts the military's heavily Republican vote in one district, limiting its influence.

Though the mayor's office is supposed to be nonpartisan, Mr. Wuerch has thrown the city into a lawsuit that is being handled by a Republican Party lawyer and will be financed by Republican Party fund raising.

It's clear the mayor's decision to join the redistricting lawsuit serves the interests of the Republican Party. Mayor Wuerch fails to demonstrate how joining this partisan lawsuit serves the best interests of the people of Anchorage. They're not the same thing.

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