Panhandle losing legislative power

Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2000

Southeast could have one fewer resident in the Alaska Legislature next year.

If it happens, it's something we should get used to. The next reworking of election districts will likely take away two lawmakers - one in the House and one in the Senate.

The possibility of change next year involves the seat now held by Republican Sen. Jerry Mackie. The former lodge-owner was elected to the state House from Craig before moving up to the Senate district that includes Kodiak Island and smaller Southeast communities from Yakutat to Metlakatla.

Mackie's not running again and the people trying to be his successor are on opposite sides of the district.

The Southeast candidate is Democrat Tim June of Haines. More than 600 miles across the Gulf of Alaska is Republican Rep. Alan Austerman of Kodiak.

Mackie predicts Austerman will win because he's served six years in the House and is the closest thing to an incumbent in the race. He also lives in the district's largest incorporated area, giving him the advantage of being familiar to a larger number of people. The Kodiak Borough has about 14,000 residents, while the Haines Borough, where June served on the assembly, has about 2,500, accord to state counts.

June, however, is an aggressive campaigner and fund-raiser who's traveled the district by plane and fishing boat, so no one should write him off. It's hard to accurately poll a district with so many people spread out over so many small towns, but we've been told a recent survey showed a very close race.

Still, if Austerman wins, there will be one fewer Southeast resident in the Legislature than there is now. That won't mean we'll lose representation. He'd still have the same people as Mackie did for his constituents. Republican Mackie and Democrat Ben Grussendorf, who's retiring as the House member representing Sitka, Wrangell and Petersburg, predict he'd treat both sides of the district the same. And Mackie said his predecessor, Kodiak's Fred Zharoff, was fair to Southeast during his four years representing the widespread district.

But it's still one fewer person from your back yard casting ballots in the Legislature.

Whichever candidate wins Nov. 7 will likely hold the seat for only two years. Reapportionment, the redrawing of election districts to adjust for population changes, will change the state's representation map significantly by the 2002 election.

Population growth in Southcentral and elsewhere along the Seward-to-Fairbanks Railbelt means there will be some major shifts in election districts.

"We'd end up with four House seats and two in the Senate for all of Southeast," Mackie said.

This should not come as a big surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to what's been happening with the state. The last redistricting, in the early '90s, left us with one fewer House seat than in the '80s, plus the shared, across-the-gulf Senate district.

My best guess is we'll retain two House and one Senate seats for Juneau. There probably still will be a Ketchikan House seat and a combined one for Sitka, Wrangell and Petersburg, with all four towns sharing a Senate seat. The change will be in the House district, now represented by Democrat Al Kookesh, and the Senate seat Mackie holds.

Mackie and Grussendorf figure residents of what's called the Iceworm or Southeast Islands House district will be absorbed into the other Southeast districts. Juneau might get Haines, Skagway and some other northern Panhandle towns. Folks in Kake and Metlakatla would go into one of the southern House districts. Angoon, Tenakee, Hoonah and others in the middle could go either way.

That could be a concern for smaller towns - and Southeast in general.

It's also possible this may not happen.

Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton, who has been looking at the numbers, said there might be a chance to hold our current level of representation. Cordova might be added to Kookesh's district, boosting the numbers a bit. And the U.S. Justice Department, which makes sure reapportionments protect minorities, might take a dim view of rolling small Native communities into districts dominated by white voters.

"The conventional wisdom is we lose that half a Senate seat," Elton said. "But I wonder if we're not just talking ourselves into it."

There's really no way to change this population-based situation. Southeast may grow, but unless we figure out a way to reduce rainfall or find a huge new oil reservoir or cure cancer with devil's club, we'll never keep up with the population explosion of the Railbelt. Nor should we.

Grussendorf thinks the only way to protect our interests is to be very picky about who we chose to fill our diminishing number of legislative seats.

"People have to spend more time looking over the people they're going to elect to represent them, someone who they know will truly be effective," he said. "They can't just say 'What difference it will make who we send.' It does make a difference. You've got to send your best and your brightest."

Ed Schoenfeld is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

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