June 1 kicks off the filing period for state office but the back and forth between the Alaska Redistricting Board and the Alaska Court System on new political boundaries continues.
A temporary redistricting plan for the 2022 state elections was adopted on Tuesday based on the latest Alaska Supreme Court opinion.
“This has the effect of re-pairing four of Anchorage’s eight Senate seats. No House map changes were made,” reads a statement from Peter Torkelson, the redistricting board’s executive director.
Interior Alaska political boundaries are consistent with what the board has previously approved. At issue is the board’s decision to place Eagle River’s two House districts into separate Senate districts, which has spurred accusations of gerrymandering.
The majority on the five-member redistricting board are seeking to preserve the strength of the military vote by pairing a House district covering Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson with an Eagle River House district to create a Senate district.
Opponents say their real motive is to amplify the conservative vote by dividing a reliably conservative community into two separate Senate seats. The courts have agreed with this view. A full explanation is pending from the state Supreme Court about why the redistricting board’s maps are gerrymandered.
The board’s three Republican appointees are Bethany Marcum, Budd Simpson and John Binkley, chairman, a Fairbanks businessman and former state legislator.
Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Matthews has repeatedly accused them of “discriminatory intent” and off-the-record coordination. He writes that they are failing to defer to public testimony.
The Anchorage judge wrote in a recent opinion that despite evidence that active duty and former military members live in Eagle River, pairing it with JBER appears to be a pretext. JBER has not been determined by the court as a “community of interest,” Matthews noted, and the redistricting board failed to present expert testimony to support treating it as a “community of interest.”
“While the board members supporting that pairing talked of rural road service, wildlife issues, and even the geographic connections (the Chugach Mountains and the Ship Creek drainage), there was little discussion of the obvious pairing of the two Eagle River House districts,” Matthews wrote.
He has scrutinized the board’s executive sessions but noted in a recent opinion that the practice has tapered off.
The judge’s opinions have also mentioned Republican members’ statements, text messages, emails and affiliations.
“The communications and statements suggest the majority board members approached the process with a predetermined outcome in mind,” Matthews wrote.
As evidence of Simpson’s partisan mindset, Matthews referred to an email in which Simpson stated that Democrats are pushing to dilute Senate districts as a way to make it easier to elect their candidates.
Matthews holds that Marcum, who was stationed at JBER and has lived in Eagle River, has made statements “that paint the picture that partisan politics was indeed a motivating factor behind her desire to pair North Eagle River with JBER.” The opinion notes that she subscribes to a Republican redistricting mailing list and “the only reasonable inference” is that Marcum is acting out of a partisan goal.
Matthews wrote that text messages by the majority suggest private phone calls are conducted between them.
At a recent board meeting, on Sunday, tensions flared as the two board members voting in the minority, Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke, vented frustration and complained about being left out of decisions with the board’s attorney, Matthew Singer. Borromeo and Bahnke oppose the maps adopted by the majority and being defended by Singer.
Things got heated with several board members pointing fingers at each other, and Binkley repeatedly calling for decorum.
At one point, Borromeo offered what she described as a “friendly amendment,” proposing that the majority on the redistricting board offer to pay the legal bills for an appeal or ask Singer to provide his services for free.
A motion by Marcum was on the floor asking the Supreme Court to review Matthews’ latest opinion.
“And you are suggesting that … as a friendly amendment?” asked Binkley.
Borromeo started to discuss the redistricting board’s legal costs when Binkley said, “Yeah, OK. I think we get it.”
“I am not done,” Borromeo said. “I am not done, and you may not get it.”
The two sometimes talked over each other.
“Well, then why don’t you make a motion and then we can have discussion on the motion,” said Binkley.
“Excuse me,” said Borromeo. “I am talking. John, let me finish. John, I am speaking to my motion, thank you very much.”
“Yeah, but you don’t speak to the motion until the motion is on the floor,” Binkley said.
“Listen, you just got done giving us a big nice lecture about being professional,” Borromeo said. “Now, please, button it up and let me finish what I am saying.”
“Yes, exactly,” Binkley said. “Exactly. And follow the rules. That would be helpful, Nicole.”