Elections director resigns abruptly at Mallott’s request, Nome city manager to take over

KNOM reporter Matthew Smith interviews Nome City Manager Josephine Bahnke earlier this month. Bahnke will step in as the Division of Elections Director in October. (Photo by John Handeland)
KNOM reporter Matthew Smith interviews Nome City Manager Josephine Bahnke earlier this month. Bahnke will step in as the Division of Elections Director in October. (Photo by John Handeland)

A veteran election official resigned abruptly on Friday at Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott’s request. The Walker-Mallott administration was Gail Fenumiai’s third as head of the state Division of Elections.

“There’s nothing personal in the request,” says Claire Richardson, special assistant to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. She says they accepted Fenumiai’s resignation on Friday.

“The lieutenant governor would like to move in some new directions with the Division of Elections and it was felt that it was time for different leadership,” Richardson says.

Gail Fenumiai (Photo by Liz Ruskin/APRN)
Gail Fenumiai (Photo by Liz Ruskin/APRN)

Fenumiai has been director of elections since 2008, and has 10 years of earlier experience in the division. She didn’t return calls for comment.

She’s being replaced by Nome City Manager Josephine Bahnke, who’ll start in October. In the meantime, election supervisor Lauri Wilson is acting director.

Richardson says Mallott hasn’t worked closely with Fenumiai since he and Gov. Bill Walker took office, but they’ve had meetings about the Tyokuk v. Treadwell case, which is in settlement negotiations. A federal judge ruled last year the state doesn’t do enough to serve voters who speak Native languages.

Richardson says there was no particular issue that led to Fenumiai’s resignation request. Rather, she characterized it as the prerogative of the administration to bring in new people.

“I think it’s just that the lieutenant governor would like to move forward and reach his goal of having the best elections division in the country,” Richardson says.

That means being customer service-oriented and “the ability for Alaskans to register and vote,” according to Richardson.

“We’re excited to have her move to Juneau and to really take a look at elections from a different perspective,” Richardson says.

Bahnke was born and raised in Nome. She says she was contacted by the lieutenant governor’s office sometime in the past month and has been going through a vetting process. Bahnke says it’ll be hard to leave Nome. She’s been city manager for 7 years.

“I did let the governor know, I love my job, I love Nome, but I think our philosophies are aligned and so I feel very honored to be asked to be a part of this administration,” Bahnke says.

Prior to her city manager role, Bahnke was a local government specialist in the Bering Strait region for the state. She was also a program director for Kawerak Inc., according to her resume. Bahnke has a master’s degree in public administration from Portland State University and a bachelor’s in political science from Fort Hays State University in Kansas.

“For the past 15 years working with tribal, state and local government and my management experience will help greatly in my new job. I haven’t gotten really into the weeds on elections. This is going to be a steep learning curve for me, but like any challenge, I’m up for it,” Bahnke says.

Bahnke plans to travel to regional election offices at the end of August.

Bahnke contributed $500 to Bill Walker’s gubernatorial campaign. After he merged with Mallott, she gave another $200, according to campaign finance disclosures.

The Division of Elections is the only division under the lieutenant governor’s office. Mallott is in Canada this week and could not be reached for comment.

KNOM’s Matthew F. Smith contributed reporting.

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