Redistricting plan could force some Southeast incumbents to run against each other

Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, lives on Cross Street in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley. Under current redistricting plans, her side of the street would join a neighboring legislative district. (Source: Alaska Redistricting Board)

The last time political boundaries were redrawn, Southeast lost a senator and a House member which diminished its voice in the legislature.

So there was some relief when the draft redistricting maps were published last week because the size of Southeast’s political delegation remained the same: four House members and two state Senators for next year’s election.

U.S. Census data shows Southeast communities have either had very modest growth or lost population while other parts of the state grew relatively quickly.

Rep. Andi Story is a Democrat now in her second term representing Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley. But the new maps released late Friday show her four-bedroom home on Auke Bay would be in a neighboring district that’s held by a party ally. But only by a few hundred yards — her neighbors across the street would be unaffected.

“It is really suspect that they chose to break up my current street this way,” she said.

It’s normal for political boundaries to be redrawn every 10 years to follow trends with population shifts. But Rep. Sara Hannan, also a Juneau Democrat, says the new lines on the map look politically motivated.

“It’s a funny little carve-out because the neighborhood that her house is in has two sides of the street, and they took only one side of the street,” Hannan said.

The draft maps also divide Ketchikan in a novel way. A zig-zag line excludes Ketchikan independent Dan Ortiz’s three-bedroom home on South Tongass Highway. That would land him in a sprawling 630-mile-long outer coastal district that would run from the Canadian border all the way up to Yakutat, in territory that’s largely represented by Sikta Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins.

Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, lives on South Tongass Highway, which under current plans would be joined with an outer coastal district that would be more than 600 miles to the northwest. (Source: Alaska Redistricting Board)

The Alaska Redistricting Board put out a statement saying there had been some errors in the mapping of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough that would be addressed when it reconvenes later this week.

“This was due to a software glitch and does not align with the board’s stated intentions,” the written statement said.

Rep. Dan Ortiz, a Ketchikan independent who caucuses with the bipartisan House majority, says that gives him hope.

“It’s my understanding — and I take it on good faith — that that specific issue will be corrected,” Ortiz said Monday.

Alaska’s Constitution is fairly specific on how legislative districts should be drawn. But Ortiz says carving out the predominantly Alaska Native city of Saxman and the outskirts south of Ketchikan could lump these voters with a representative that might be hundreds of miles away.

“It puts part of South Tongass and part of Saxman as a part of the west coast district that goes all the way up to Yakutat,” Ortiz said. “That’s just not in the best interest of the people who live on Revillagigedo Island.”

GOP redistricting veteran says politicos’ residences weren’t targeted

Veteran Republicans involved in the redistricting process say shifting demographics made the new districts inevitable. Former state Republican chairman Randy Ruederich fronts a group calling itself Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting.

“There just wasn’t enough population — south of Juneau — to build two districts under any shape,” he told CoastAlaska. “So we had to do to create the map that I was working on, we had to arrange to import the Yakutat’s population from the north.”

He says there wasn’t any deliberate effort to exclude incumbents. But Ruedrich says it made sense to carve out the city of Saxman from the Ketchikan district and include it with other Alaska Native communities to the northwest.

“I haven’t even thought about who lives where,” Ruedrich said. “But we did carve out — if you’re using that term — we did select Saxman to be in the coastal district since it has most of the other Alaska Native villages. And it has Sitka, which is the center of many other services. I thought it was justified to include it in the maritime district.”

These maps are only drafts, and the courts often get involved following legal challenges.

The Alaska Redistricting Board released its final draft of maps on Sept. 9, 2021. (Alaska Redistricting Board)

But it’s shaping up to be the opening of a high stakes political exercise that will play out through the Nov. 10 deadline to settle political boundaries.

Alaskans for Fair Redistricting — a coalition tied to organized labor and public interest advocates — says that it would be offering viable alternatives.

“Our coalition believes that the board’s pairings ‘speak for themselves’ but would offer that while Southeast Alaska has challenges, AFFR will offer an alternative solution to those challenges that does not involve those pairings,” the group’s chair, Joelle Hall, wrote in a statement.

Democrats accuse redistricting board of partisanship

Rep. Andi Story, the Juneau Democrat, says this process is too political. Three of the five members on the redistricting board are registered Republicans.

“It’s probably a good reason for why we should have a nonpartisan redistricting board,” Stori said.

If the current maps are allowed to stand, it would shake up the political landscape in Southeast by forcing political allies to either contest each other in the 2022 election or uproot themselves.

Rep. Sara Hannan says that’s a tall order for part-time legislators. She notes she’s lived in her home for more than 25 years.

“I am not a politically committed enough public servant to move to continue to represent a district,” she said.

Which, cynics might say, could be exactly the point.

The Alaska Redistricting Board will be soliciting public comment. It next meets on Friday, Sept. 17.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Rep. Andi Story’s house is on Auke Lake. It is in Auke Bay.

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