House district tilts toward Juneau
Haines would be included in a state House of Representatives district dominated by voters from Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley under a new plan adopted Monday by the Alaska Redistricting Board.
The news triggered concerns among Haines leaders that the town could lose clout in the Alaska Legislature wielded by state Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, who co-chairs the powerful House Finance Committee.
Thomas helped secure about $20 million in capital projects for the Chilkat Valley during the past legislative session.
The new boundaries would pit Thomas against Rep. Cathy Munoz, a Republican who represents north Juneau. Both are seeking re-election. The new district would include Haines, Skagway and Gustavus, but about 14,000 of its 17,500 residents would be in Juneau.
“This means Haines is screwed politically because there are three- or four-to-one more Juneau voters than Haines voters. All the legislators work well together and a Juneau legislator would look out for us, but not in the way Bill (Thomas) has demonstrated in recent years,” said resident and former Haines Borough manager Robert Venables.
Mayor Stephanie Scott this week e-mailed assembly members, advising them on how they could weigh in on the redistricting process.
Thomas said he was considering options including running against Munoz, changing party affiliation, retiring from public life or returning to his former career as a lobbyist. “I haven’t figured out which one to do yet.”
Changing party affiliation would allow Thomas to bypass a primary election battle against Munoz and face her only in November’s general election.
The redistricting board revised the proposed district’s boundaries to comply with an order by the Alaska Supreme Court that the map be based on state constitutional requirements that districts be compact, contiguous and share similar socio-economics. The court will review the new plan and hear appeals early next week.
If approved, the new plan goes to the U.S. Department of Justice for a check of compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act and particularly a requirement to maximize Native voting influence.
Thomas said several Native organizations, including Tlingit-Haida, Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sealaska Corporation are concerned the revised district would diminish the Native vote. The previously proposed district was about 35 percent Native, Thomas said. The new one would shrink that number to almost nothing, he said.
Under the previous redistricting plan, Haines was to go into a district including Sitka and a number smaller communities Thomas now serves, minus communities including Skagway, Gustavus, Tenakee, Yakutat, Cordova and two neighboring Prince William Sound communities.
“We have nothing in common with Juneau other than that we breathe air and we eat,” Thomas said this week. For the relatively scant numbers of voters in Haines, a representative of the new district wouldn’t even have to visit here, he said.
Thomas said the new district would contain considerably more Republicans than his current one, which he described as generally divided between Democrats, Republicans and independent voters.
He said Juneau voters might do well to vote for him. “Juneau hasn’t had a chair of House Finance in 30 years.”
Redistricting is required every decade. Districts must have a uniform population statewide. Boundaries of districts are changed to reflect geographical population changes.
In other news this week, Haines and Klukwan projects were spared from Gov. Sean Parnell’s more than $66 million in vetoes from the state budget.“The office of Representative (Bill) Thomas is pleased to announce that Governor Parnell did not make any vetoes to any of the projects of District 5,” staffer Jessie Badger shared in an e-mail Monday.
Among the $19 million in state funding for the Chilkat Valley are $6.1 million for a new veterans’ home on the site of the Thunderbird Motel and $4.5 million in harbor breakwater improvements.