Panel named to reshape districts

Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2000

A five-member board that will draw new legislative boundaries after the census has political, geographic and racial balance, according to observers.

Appointments to the new board, formally known as the Redistricting Planning Committee, were completed Tuesday. One of the members is Juneau civil litigator Michael Lessmeier.

Since statehood, the task of redistricting had been the governor's, which made Alaska unique. But in 1998, voters narrowly approved a constitutional amendment creating the five-member board, a move intended to limit partisanship.

Under the new system, two appointments are made by the governor, and one each by the Senate president, the speaker of the House and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Lessmeier, 45, who has been practicing law in Juneau since 1983, was the choice this week of House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican. Senate President Drue Pearce, also an Anchorage Republican, appointed former Republican legislator Bert Sharp of Fairbanks.

Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, last week named Julian Mason, an Anchorage attorney, and Vicki Otte, executive director of the Association of ANCSA Regional Corporation Presidents and CEOs, who also resides in Anchorage.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe made the final appointment Tuesday: Leona Okakok of Barrow, manager of the Arctic Education Foundation, part of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.

Jerry McBeath, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that he infers a 3-2 Democratic edge from the appointments.

"The two gubernatorial appointees are likely to look for Democratic gains," McBeath said today. "Bert Sharp is definitely a partisan Republican. I don't know Lessmeier, but presumably he's going to look for Republican gains."

McBeath said he didn't know Okakok's political orientation. But he said Democrats in 1998 didn't fight that hard to keep the exclusive redistricting power for Knowles, who was favored for re-election that year. They figured Knowles had shaped the Supreme Court enough to give them an edge there, too, McBeath said.

Knowles appointed Fabe to the court in 1996, and she was chosen chief justice by her colleagues in June.

Lessmeier called himself an independent voter. He also said he won't be biased in favor of Juneau or Southeast.

"I think the perspective I'm going to try to take is an objective perspective, based on the data that we have," he said.

Rich Listowski of Juneau, a member of the Alaska Democratic Central Committee, applauded the appointment of two Native women. That's considered key because the U.S. Justice Department will check the new legislative map to make sure minority voting strength isn't diluted. The Bush is due to lose seats in the Legislature because of military base closures there, as well as rapid growth in Alaska's urban centers.

Listowski said he's hopeful a court challenge to the redistricting plan can be avoided.

"They have a chance to make history by doing it right the first time," he said.

Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich said he expects redistricting to be "much less strictly partisan."

"I think we'll have more stable districts in the future," so that boundaries won't change much decade-to-decade, unless population does, he said.

Once final census numbers are announced early next year, the redistricting board will propose one or more plans for new legislative boundaries for the 40 House and 20 Senate seats. The board must hold public hearings and adopt a final plan in the following 60 days. The plan would change districts for the election in 2002.

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