Stories about Alaska

Mayoral election in Anchorage, Alaska to be held April 6

The city of Anchorage, Alaska, is holding a nonpartisan general election for mayor on April 6. Fourteen candidates are running. Media attention has been focused on six candidates: David Bronson, Forrest Dunbar, Bill Evans, Bill Falsey, George Martinez, and Mike Robbins. These candidates also lead in endorsements and fundraising. Heather Herndon, Jacob Versteeg, Joe Westfall, Albert Swank, Reza Momin, Anna Anthony, Darin Colbry, and Jacob Seth Kern are also running.

Incumbent Ethan Berkowitz (D) resigned from office on Oct. 23, 2020, due to what he said was “unacceptable personal conduct that has compromised my ability to perform my duties with the focus and trust that is required.” The Anchorage Assembly selected Austin Quinn-Davidson to serve as acting mayor.

Economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is a central issue in the race. Dunbar and Falsey said they support maintaining safety measures enacted by the Anchorage Assembly, such as a mask mandate and business restrictions, while Bronson, Evans, and Robbins said that they support reconsidering or removing restrictions. Homelessness and crime is also a key topic, with candidates divided over shelter funding and locations and prevention methods.

To be elected mayor, a candidate needs to win at least 45% of the vote. If no candidate wins 45% of the vote on April 6, the two candidates with the most votes will compete in a runoff election held on May 11.

The city government of Anchorage combines a council-manager system with a strong mayor system. The city council serves as the city’s primary legislative body and the mayor serves as the chief executive of the city. The mayor is responsible for proposing a budget, signing legislation into law, appointing departmental directors, and overseeing the city’s day-to-day operations. The mayor also represents the city on the state, national and international levels.

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Who funded the campaigns for and against ranked-choice voting ballot measures in 2020?

Voters in Alaska and Massachusetts decided statewide ranked-choice voting ballot measures in 2020. Alaskans approved an initiated statute to replace partisan primaries with open top-four primaries and establish ranked-choice voting for general elections, including the presidential election. Voters in Massachusetts rejected an initiative to adopt ranked-choice voting statewide.  

The top-two donors to the campaigns behind the ballot initiatives were the non-profit organizations Action Now Initiative and Unite America. Action Now Initiative was a top donor to ranked-choice voting measures in previous years, such as Maine Question 5 (2016) and New York City Question 1 (2019). Unite America also contributed to campaigns in prior years but did not break into the lists of top-five largest donors. In 2020, Unite America was the largest donor to Alaskans for Better Elections and the third-largest donor to Voter Choice Massachusetts.

The Action Now Initiative provided $6.59 million to the statewide ranked-choice voting campaigns in 2020, including $2.93 million in Alaska and $3.66 million in Massachusetts. John and Laura Arnold founded the Action Now Initiative as a 501(c)(4) organization in Huston, Texas, in 2011. Besides ranked-choice voting ballot measures, the Action Now Initiative has supported ballot initiatives related to redistricting commissions and criminal justice changes.

Unite America contributed $3.84 million to the ranked-choice voting campaigns in 2020, $3.40 million of which was donated to Alaskans for Better Actions. While Unite America provided $445,000 to Voters Choice Massachusetts, the organization’s board co-chair, Kathryn Murdoch, donated $2.50 million and board member Katherine Gehl contributed $250,000. Unite America, founded in 2014 as the Centrist Project, is based in Denver, Colorado, and has the stated purpose of electing officials and enacting electoral laws that reduce partisanship and achieve better governing outcomes. Unite America has a federal hybrid political action committee (PAC) and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Opponents of the two ballot measures did not have overlapping donors. In Massachusetts, an opposition PAC raised $8,475. In Alaska, opponents received $579,426, including $150,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national organization that seeks to elect down-ballot, state-level Republicans, and $50,000 from the Alaska Republican Party. 

In 2020, voters in five cities—two in California, two in Minnesota, and one in Colorado—also decided ranked-choice voting ballot measures. All five measures were approved.

The next scheduled vote on a ranked-choice voting ballot measure is March 2 in Burlington, Vermont. Former Gov. Howard Dean (D) and City Councilmember Zoraya Hightower (Vermont Progressive Party) are co-chairing the support campaign Better Ballot Burlington.

Committees registered to support or oppose all 129 statewide measures on the ballot in 2020 reported a combined total of $1.23 billion in contributions.

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Alaska House organizes under multi-partisan coalition control

On Feb. 18, the Alaska House of Representatives organized under the control of a multipartisan coalition caucus, voting 22-17 to approve a plan of organization placing members of the coalition in charge of committees. Since the start of the legislative session on Jan. 19, the House was split evenly between a Republican bloc and a coalition of Democrats, independents, and Louise Stutes (R). The group was joined by Reps. Sara Rasmussen (R) and Kelly Merrick (R) in the vote on organizing the House (another legislator, Rep. Mike Prax (R), was not present for the vote). Though the coalition caucus received enough votes to organize the chamber, two of the legislators who voted alongside the coalition to assign committee membership —Reps. Sara Rasmussen (R) and Geran Tarr (D)—said they would not join either the coalition or Republican caucuses, leaving both groups without a numerical majority in the 40-member House.

Rasmussen said she would serve as an independent Republican not affiliated with the coalition majority or the Republican minority. With Stutes and Kelly Merrick (R) already a part of the coalition caucus, Rasmussen’s decision left the Republican caucus with 18 members. Tarr (D) also said she would vote independent of the caucus, leaving it with 20 members—14 Democrats, four independents, and two Republicans. Though both Rasmussen and Tarr voted with the coalition caucus to approve committee assignments, neither has stated whether they will continue to support the coalition in future votes. “We’re still working on things here,” Tarr said. Rasmussen said that although she hasn’t “made an agreement to vote on anything,” she hopes that “with compromise, there will be some good policy that can move forward.”

Under the approved organization plan, Rep. Chris Tuck (D) will serve as majority leader and Rep. Cathy Tilton (R) will serve as minority leader. Reps. Neal Foster (D) and Kelly Merrick (R) will co-chair the House Finance Committee and Rep. Bryce Edgmon (I) will lead the Rules Committee, which determines whether bills receive a floor vote. Out of the other eight standing committees in the House, six will be chaired or co-chaired by Democrats, one will be chaired by an independent, and one will be co-chaired by a Democrat and an independent.

The situation in the Alaska House is unusual; generally, the party with a numerical majority organizes to select presiding officers, appoint committee members, and vote on legislation. A coalition caucus was formed in the House after the 2018 elections despite Republicans winning a majority of the seats in the chamber, but that coalition was composed of 25 members, four more than the 21 votes needed to assign committee membership and pass legislation. Republicans maintained a numerical majority of 21 members after the 2020 elections, but Stutes’ decision to join the coalition group left each faction with 20 members. Merrick later joined the coalition bloc as well, but Tarr’s decision to vote separately from the coalition kept it from reaching 21 members.

Jennifer Fletcher, a state legislative librarian, said she did not know of any previous case where a 20-member caucus negotiated with other legislators to acquire the votes necessary to control the chamber. Forrest Nabors, chair of the political science department at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said that the situation in the House was “highly unusual,” but that, in Alaska, “party affiliations are not the same as they are in other states and in the country in general. Hence, I think we err in trying to frame majorities and minorities in our state in terms of parties. For the last three legislative sessions, that mold has been formally broken, and our nomenclature should recognize that break.”

Out of the 99 legislative chambers in the country, the Alaska House is the only chamber under the control of a multipartisan, power-sharing coalition after the 2020 elections, with Republicans controlling 61 legislative chambers and Democrats controlling 37.  Alaska is one of 12 states under divided government as opposed to a state government trifecta in which one party holds the governorship, a majority in the state senate, and a majority in the state house. There are currently 15 Democratic and 23 Republican trifectas.

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Alaska House of Representatives elects speaker for 2021 session

On Feb. 11, twenty-four days after the 2021 legislative session began on Jan. 19th, the Alaska House of Representatives elected a permanent speaker of the House. Members elected Rep. Louise Stutes (R) in a 21-19 vote.

Since the start of the session, House members had been divided between supporters of a Republican-led majority and those favoring a multipartisan coalition. Republicans won a 21-19 majority in the 2020 general election, but in December, Stutes joined the coalition bloc composed of 16 Democrats and three independents, leaving each faction with 20 members.

In January, Reps. Bart LeBon (R), Laddie Shaw (R), and Neal Foster (D) were nominated for the speakership, but each vote ended in an even 20-20 split. On Feb. 4th, the House unanimously elected Rep. Josiah Patkotak (I) as temporary speaker. Rep. Ben Carpenter (R) said the House Republican Caucus nominated Patkotak, who is a member of the coalition bloc, to “alleviate the Lt. Governor from his temporary responsibility as presiding officer and to move the discussion forward about finding a permanent presiding officer.”

Rep. Kelly Merrick’s (R) vote for Stutes ultimately broke the recurring tie votes. Merrick said, “Today, I voted to elect Republican Representative Louise Stutes as Speaker of the House, ending more than three weeks of deadlock and allowing the Legislature to move forward. It was by no means an easy decision to make, but it ensured that no matter how organization comes together, there will be a Republican Speaker.”

The three-week period without a House speaker is the second-longest in the state’s history. In 2018, similar divisions kept House members from electing a speaker until Feb. 14th, 2019, when a coalition of 15 Democrats, four Republicans, and two independents elected Bryce Edgmon (I) as House speaker and agreed to split other key leadership and committee positions between the two parties.

With split control of the House and Republican control of the Senate and governor’s office, Alaska’s trifecta status remains divided. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers. There are currently 23 Republican trifectas, 15 Democratic trifectas, and 12 divided governments where neither party holds trifecta control. After the 2020 elections, Republicans had a net gain of two trifectas and two states under divided government became trifectas.

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Alaska House of Representatives elects temporary speaker

Forty-six state legislatures are currently in session. The Alaska House of Representatives has been in session since Jan. 19. But no regular business has taken place because legislators have not elected a permanent speaker or organized committees.

Partisan control of the House was uncertain after the 2020 elections, split between those favoring a Republican-led majority and those supporting a multi-party coalition. Republicans won 21 of 40 seats, but Rep. Louise Stutes (R) joined a coalition of 16 Democrats and three independents, leaving legislators split into two 20-member factions.

The Alaska House elected Josiah Patkotak (I) unanimously as temporary speaker on Feb. 4. Patkotak was elected to his first term on Nov. 3. He is presiding over the chamber until a permanent speaker is elected, taking over for Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer (R) who had filled the role of presiding officer since the legislative session began. Legislators have not submitted any nominations for a permanent speaker as of Feb. 9.

Alaska has a Republican governor, and Republicans control the state Senate, so final control of the chamber will also determine the state’s trifecta status.

The Alaska House faced a similar situation after the 2018 elections. That year, Republican-aligned candidates won 23 seats, and Democratic-aligned candidates won 17. A coalition of 15 Democrats, four Republicans, and two independents elected Bryce Edgmon (I) as House speaker on Feb. 14, 2019. Edgmon was originally elected as a Democrat but changed his party affiliation to independent before he was elected speaker. Both parties split control of key leadership positions and committees.

14 candidates file to run for mayor of Anchorage

The city of Anchorage, Alaska, will hold a nonpartisan general election for mayor on April 6, 2021. The filing deadline for this election was January 29. If no candidate receives at least 45% of the vote in the general election, a runoff election will be held on May 11 between the top two candidates.

Fourteen candidates filed to run for the open seat: Anna Anthony, David Bronson, Jeffrey T. Brown, Darin Colbry, Forrest Dunbar, Bill Evans, Bill Falsey, Heather Herndon, Jacob Kern, George Martinez, Reza Momin, Mike Robbins, Albert Swank Jr., and Joe Westfall.

Austin Quinn-Davidson became the acting mayor of Anchorage on October 23, 2020, following the resignation of Ethan Berkowitz. In the statement announcing his resignation, Berkowitz said, “My resignation results from unacceptable personal conduct that has compromised my ability to perform my duties with the focus and trust that is required.”

As of February 2021, the partisan breakdown of the mayors of the 100 largest U.S. cities was 64 Democrats, 25 Republicans, four independents, and seven nonpartisans.

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Sniffen resigns as acting Alaska attorney general

On Jan. 29, acting Alaska Attorney General Ed Sniffen announced his resignation and withdrew his name from consideration for attorney general due to an allegation of sexual misconduct. Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) had appointed Sniffen as attorney general on Jan. 18, but he had not yet been confirmed by the Alaska Legislature. 

Nikki Dougherty White, a former member of a high school mock trial team coached by Sniffen, recently went public with an allegation that she and Sniffen had had a sexual relationship when she was 17 years old. At the request of the governor, the Alaska Department of Law has launched an investigation into possible criminal misconduct by Sniffen.

Sniffen is the second Alaska attorney general to resign in the past year due to allegations of misconduct. He took office in an acting capacity in August 2020 when his predecessor, Kevin Clarkson, resigned after an investigation revealed that he had sent hundreds of unwanted text messages to a junior employee.

Gov. Dunleavy has appointed Treg Taylor as Sniffen’s replacement. Prior to his appointment, Taylor served as deputy attorney general of the civil division at the Alaska Department of Law. He ran in an unsuccessful bid for the Anchorage Assembly in 2016. Taylor will serve in an acting capacity until he has been confirmed.

The attorney general of Alaska is the principal executive officer of the Alaska Department of Law. While the attorney general is an elected position in 43 states and the District of Columbia, it is appointed by the governor in five states, including Alaska. In Alaska, the governor’s nominee must be confirmed by a majority of the members of the legislature in a joint session.

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State supreme court vacancies in 2021

So far in 2021, there have been two new state supreme court vacancies in two of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies have both been caused by retirements. 

In Colorado, Chief Justice Nathan Coats retired on January 1, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 72. Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) appointed Maria Berkenkotter to the Colorado Supreme Court on November 20, 2020. Berkenkotter is Polis’ first nominee to the seven-member supreme court. In South Dakota, Chief Justice David Gilbertson retired in early January, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 years old. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) appointed Scott P. Myren to the South Dakota Supreme Court on October 28, 2020.

Currently, Maine is the only appointment state which had a vacancy in 2020 which has yet to be filled.

Three more states will see vacancies from retirement on their state supreme courts in 2021:

• Joel Bolger, June 30, 2021, Alaska

• Leslie Stein, June 4, 2021, New York

• Eugene Fahey, December 31, 2021, New York

In Alaska, the vacancy will be filled by Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy. Both of the vacancies on the New York Supreme Court will be filled by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.

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Control of Alaska House of Representatives remains uncertain after Alaska Supreme Court decision

The Alaska Supreme Court confirmed Alaska Representative Lance Pruitt’s (R) 11-vote loss to Democratic challenger Liz Snyder on Friday, January 8. The court ruled that Pruitt did not provide sufficient evidence to sustain his challenge of the election results.

Pruitt’s loss means that control of the chamber will likely remain uncertain until at least January 19, when lawmakers will convene in Juneau for the start of the legislative session. As a result of this decision, the Alaska House of Representatives is currently split between a 20-member Republican faction and a multi-partisan coalition of 16 Democrats (including Snyder), three independents, and Republican Louise Stutes. Had Pruitt won, it could have given the Republican wing of the House the 21 votes needed to control the chamber.

Pruitt’s lawsuit centered on the argument that the state did not adequately notify the public when the Alaska Division of Elections moved a polling location and that the Division of Elections did not provide suitable election security in regard to absentee ballots. Pruitt’s attorney in the case, Stacey Stone, said that Pruitt will not pursue any further action to contest the results of the election. “The integrity of our election system serves as the foundation of our government. We respect the decision of the court today, but we hope the Division (of Elections) addresses the issues that occurred in Precinct 915 so that these type of events do not occur in the future, and that all voters constitutional rights are guaranteed. We await the supreme court’s full opinion as to how they addressed the multiple points on appeal,” Stone said. After the verdict was announced, Snyder said, “It was great to see that come out the way we anticipated it.”

Although Republicans won a 23-16 majority with one independent in the 2018 elections, a coalition of 15 Democrats, four Republicans, and two independents elected Bryce Edgmon (I) as House speaker on February 14, 2019. The parties split control of key leadership positions and committees and Edgmon was elected speaker after leaving the Democratic Party. The House majority consisted of 15 Democrats, eight Republicans, and two members unaffiliated with either party. Of the eight Republicans who joined the majority coalition in 2018, only Steve M. Thompson and Louise Stutes were re-elected in 2020.

Eighty-six of 99 state legislative chambers across 44 states held general elections on November 3, 2020. Heading into the 2020 elections, Republicans had majorities in 59 chambers and Democrats had majorities in 39 chambers. Partisan control flipped in two chambers—Republicans gained majorities in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and the New Hampshire State Senate.

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Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice to retire in June 2021

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger is retiring on June 30, 2021. Bolger’s replacement will be Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s (R) second nominee to the five-member supreme court.

Bolger joined the Alaska Supreme Court in 2013. He was appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell (R) to succeed Justice Walter Carpeneti. He became chief justice of the court in July 2018. Bolger is the only justice to have served on every level in the Alaska state court system. Before joining the Alaska Supreme Court, Bolger was a judge on the Alaska Court of Appeals from 2008 to 2013, the Kodiak Superior Court from 2003 to 2008, and the Valdez District Court from 1997 to 2003. Bolger received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Iowa in 1976 and his J.D. from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1978.

Under Alaska law, state supreme court justices are selected by the governor with help from a seven-member nominating commission. The commission provides a list of two or more candidates to the governor, who must choose from that list. New justices serve an initial term of at least three years, after which the justice must stand for retention in a yes-no election to remain on the bench. Subsequent terms last 10 years. The chief justice of the supreme court is selected by peer vote and serves a three-year term.

In addition to Chief Justice Bolger, the Alaska Supreme Court currently includes the following justices:

  • Daniel Winfree – Appointed by Gov. Sarah Palin (R) in 2008
  • Peter Maassen – Appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell (R) in 2012
  • Susan Carney – Appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell (R) in 2012
  • Dario Borghesan – Appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) in 2020

In 2021, there will be three supreme court vacancies in two of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies are due to retirements. One vacancy—South Dakota—is in a state where a Republican governor appoints the replacement. The second vacancy—Colorado—is in a state where a Democratic governor appoints the replacement, and the vacancy in Alaska is in a state where a Republican governor appoints the replacement.

In 2020, there have been 23 supreme court vacancies in 16 of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. One vacancy occurred when a chief justice died, one vacancy occurred when a justice was not retained, and 21 vacancies were caused by retirements.

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