In 4 a.m. emails, demonstrations and in-person ambushes, Alaskans press lawmakers on budget vetoes

Linda Hulen, an Anchorage teacher, speaks about Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes with Anchorage GOP Reps. Gabrielle LeDoux (left) and Laddie Shaw after Republican legislators held a meeting in Wasilla. (Photo by Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen was taking her small children out of a bath recently when someone showed up at her door. They wanted to talk about Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s line-item vetoes of some $400 million from the budget, including steep cuts to the state’s university system.

“I had to take my three-year-old to the door in his towel, because I didn’t have time to get him dressed,” Rasmussen told reporters at a news conference Monday.

That door-knock was one piece of a huge grassroots advocacy effort sparked by Dunleavy’s vetoes. In interviews, lawmakers said they’re experiencing an unprecedented flood of calls, emails, correspondence and in-person conversations in advance of a vote on the vetoes expected this week — with people urging them to overturn or uphold the governor’s decisions.

Alaskans are approaching their legislators for in-person lobbying, in some cases drawing on their personal connections and stories. They’re holding rallies and sleepovers to broadcast their messages. And they’re barraging lawmakers with phone calls, text messages and emails by the hundreds.

Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki spent 12 years in the state House before being elected to his Senate seat last year, and he said he’s never seen this level of activism. He got some four-dozen emails between midnight and 8 a.m. Monday, he said, and he asked the Legislature’s support staff to check whether the messages came through some type of delivery system.

“They’re not using a proxy service. There are literally people up at four in the morning that are sending us emails about the overrides,” Kawasaki said. “It is almost an insurmountable number.”

Kawasaki spoke in a phone interview from Juneau, where most lawmakers have gathered for a special session called by Dunleavy. Dunleavy asked the Legislature to convene in Wasilla, but most members of the majority caucuses in the state House and Senate argue that lawmakers have the authority to choose where they meet.

In Wasilla, a minority group of Republican lawmakers largely aligned with Dunleavy has been holding its own meetings. On Monday, dozens of people showed up to demonstrate and speak with lawmakers.

After the Republicans finished their brief meeting, Shirley and Jerry Dewhurst of Big Lake started a conversation with Eagle River Sen. Lora Reinbold. The Dewhursts pressed her to override the vetoes by telling her about their daughters who graduated from the state university system and still live in Alaska. But Reinbold seemed unmoved.

The university system, she told them, is “still going to get lots and lots and lots of money.”

“They still have their land. They still have their buildings,” she said. “It’s how you look at it — half-empty or half-full.”

The Dewhursts are in their 70s — they work in real estate, and they said in an interview that they’re not normally the types to be political advocates. But, Jerry added, “We believe in our education system. We believe in funding needs. We can’t always just keep cutting.”

Republican lawmakers sit at a meeting Monday at Wasilla Middle School. (Photo by Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Similar scenes were being repeated in different corners of the middle school.

Carol Anne Wolfe, a retired social worker, drove to Wasilla from Anchorage specifically to have a conversation with Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage. Shaw used to work in law enforcement, and he also worked with Wolfe’s husband, she said. So she tried to connect with Shaw by speaking about her experience working with the vulnerable people that she thinks would be affected by Dunleavy’s vetoes to social services.

“I just appealed to him on a personal level,” Wolfe said. Shaw, she added, “has worked with these folks. And I think he knows, in a personal way, how this is going to impact people.”

Kawasaki, who opposes the governor’s vetoes, said he thinks the messages are coming in about 20- or 30-to-1 in favor of overriding them. Nonetheless, some Alaskans are still pushing their legislators to sustain the cuts.

Mike Coons of Palmer works with a conservative senior citizens group; he was in Wasilla asking lawmakers to uphold Dunleavy’s veto of $21 million in cash benefits for the elderly.

Coons, in an interview, said the real hit to senior citizens was when lawmakers reduced the size of permanent fund dividends in recent years. He had in-person conversations with lawmakers in Wasilla, but he said he’s also made “more than dozens” of phone calls, listing off some of the legislators by their first names: Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage; House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; and Anchorage Democratic Rep. Harriet Drummond.

“I’ve called Cathy, I’ve called Bryce, I’ve called Drummond. Of course, I called the Republicans,” Coons said. “You know, go right on down the line.”

Alaskans have also held large rallies in Juneau, Wasilla and elsewhere during the special session.

Last week, a group opposed to Dunleavy’s vetoes held a sleepover in downtown Anchorage; another Anchorage anti-veto rally was scheduled for late Tuesday, with a concert by the Alaska pop band Portugal. The Man.

The unanswered question is how much impact these emails, arguments and demonstrations will have.

The Dewhursts, the couple from Big Lake that spoke with Reinbold about the university system, weren’t expecting much.

“Closed ears. They’ve got closed ears,” Shirley Dewhurst said.

Reinbold, in an interview, disagreed.

“We are listening,” she said. “We do have town halls, we do get on the radio, we do have emails, we do meet with people in our offices. It’s been very, very busy.”

Several lawmakers said they’ve been having trouble keeping up with all the email correspondence; another senator, Republican Mike Shower of Wasilla, had 1,700 messages to sort through, according to one of his aides.

In an interview, Shower sounded inclined to support the governor’s vetoes, though he said he’s been having cordial conversations with people who disagree with him.

Most of the messages he’s getting aren’t from people in his district, he said, and so right now, he’s not being swayed.

An email to a constituent from Wasilla Republican Rep. Cathy Tilton. The constituent had asked Tilton to vote to override Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes; Tilton responded by suggesting that the constituent run for her seat.

“Because we have to get this done, and nobody said this was going to be easy. Because I’m having to look at people and say, ‘Your agency is going to get cut. Your job might go away,’” he said. “That’s not easy, to look at people and tell them that. But I’m staying respectful.”

One particularly creative response to constituent feedback came from Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, who’s been aligned with the governor. When one constituent emailed to ask her to vote to override the vetoes, Tilton sent back a message that ended with a link to the state’s election laws.

“Clearly, you possess different ideas. Your perspective would offer the voters of District 12 a meaningful choice,” Tilton wrote. “I encourage you to run for office. I look forward to discussing these complicated issues on the campaign trail.”

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