An Alaska politics recap: From redistricting lawsuits to a Capitol COVID outbreak

A masked woman waits in the stairwell of the Capitol Building on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Alaska’s political scene has been busy. The state Supreme court ruled on redistricting last week, the House plans to take up the budget in a few days — and there’s yet another conflict about mask-wearing on the House floor. Andrew Kitchenman spoke to Alaska Public Media’s Lori Townsend about the latest developments and what happens next.

Listen here:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Andrew Kitchenman: So first, the biggest consequence is that the court upheld Anchorage Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews’ finding that the redistricting board had violated the state constitution in how it paired a House district that includes most of Eagle River with a House district that includes the south Muldoon neighborhood to make up one Senate district.

On the other hand, the court rejected Matthews’ finding that there was a problem with the House district Skagway was placed in. Skagway had wanted to be in a district with downtown Juneau, but it will be with Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley area instead.

The only other change is that the court found a problem with which district the community of Cantwell was placed in. It basically said that Cantwell should be in the same House district as the rest of the Denali Borough, and not with the Ahtna villages. The court said that the board’s map for Cantwell wasn’t compact and that the board hadn’t justified it adequately.

So now Judge Matthews will have to give the board an order. The board may have to decide how many Senate districts it wants to rearrange to correct for the issue in Eagle River and south Muldoon. If all of Eagle River is kept in the same Senate district and both major pieces of Muldoon are kept in a Senate district, then at least four Senate districts will have to be rearranged.

The upshot of all of this could increase the number of competitive Anchorage Senate seats. Under the original map, both Eagle River Senate districts were heavily Republican.

Lori Townsend: When will we have a clearer idea about those Senate districts?

Andrew Kitchenman: First, Judge Matthews has to issue that order to the board. The board will have to meet and take action. And at that point, there could be one or more new lawsuits. But if there aren’t more lawsuits, then all of this could be resolved well ahead of the June 1 deadline for candidates to file for the election.

Lori Townsend: Andrew, given the fact that a number of other Senate districts could be affected, if lawsuits do come and push past the first of June, what would that mean for candidates who want to get into these races?

Andrew Kitchenman: Based on what’s happened in the past, the Senate would use the map that was current at that time — that is, the time of the lawsuits. And if there has to be changes to the map later, those will go into effect for the next general election in 2024.

Lori Townsend: What other state political news has happened recently that people should know about?

Andrew Kitchenman: Another piece of news is the Anchorage Democratic Representative Ivy Spohnholz has tested positive for COVID-19. Certainly not the first legislator to be in this position. The timing is a little awkward because the House majority only has a one-vote majority, and so any time a member is out, that does affect the House floor sessions. She tested positive on Friday, and she’s isolating and expects to be clear to be back on Thursday of this week. Since the House majority doesn’t have any votes to spare, that’s also when the floor debate on the budget is expected to pick up. House Speaker Louise Stutes reinstituted a mask requirement on the floor on Monday, but some members wouldn’t comply, so she ended the floor session. We’ll see what happens on Tuesday.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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