Alaska attorney general rejects petition to recall governor

Governor Mike Dunleavy announcing vetoes totaling $440 million in June 2019 (Screenshot by Joaqlin Estus)

Joaqlin Estus

Recall Dunleavy campaign: ‘We are confident we will prevail’

Alaska attorney general Kevin Clarkson Monday rejected a petition to recall Gov. Mike Dunleavy, saying it doesn’t meet statutory requirements. Citing the attorney general’s opinion, division of elections director Gail Fenumiai notified the Recall Dunleavy campaign its application for certification had been denied.

The recall petition charges the governor with violating the state constitution, neglect of duties, incompetence and unfitness for office. In his 25-page opinion, Clarkson said the petition’s grounds for recall are factually and legally insufficient.

“We are unsurprised by the politically motivated decision from the attorney general rejecting our application…” said Meda DeWitt, Tlingit, chair and spokesperson for the Recall Dunleavy campaign. “On behalf of over 49,000 Alaskans who showed their support for the movement by signing the application, we will appeal the state’s decision tomorrow (Nov. 5) in Superior Court.”

“We are well prepared and we are confident that we will prevail,” said Dewitt.

Meda DeWitt, chair and spokesperson for the Recall Dunleavy campaign. (Photo: Larry Goldin)

The Recall Dunleavy campaign announced its legal team on Sept. 5, the same day the group submitted its recall application to the division of elections. The team includes former Alaska attorney general Jahna Lindemuth and several attorneys experienced in ballot initiatives and political campaigns.

DeWitt said Alaskans have a right to vote on whether to remove Dunleavy from office, and “ultimately the courts will enforce” that right.

The application limited the explanation of the grounds for the recall to 200 words. Clarkson said 149 pages of information attached to the petition are far in excess of that limit so were not considered.

The Superior Court has thirty days to review the determination if an appeal is filed.

One of the four alleged grounds for the recall is that Dunleavy violated the state constitution and Alaska law by refusing to appoint a judge within 45 days of receiving nominations from the non-partisan Judicial Council. In what appeared to be a challenge to the council’s authority to select nominees, Dunleavy announced he was not going to appoint a judge to the Palmer Superior Court until he received more information from the council justifying its rejection of certain candidates.

However, according to Clarkson, the campaign’s recall application “must show an inability, willful neglect, or outright illegal intent on the part of the elected official.” He said, “Mere procedural or technical failures are not enough.”

The second alleged ground for recall was that Dunleavy misused state funds when he authorized and allowed the state to pay for partisan electronic ads and direct mailers about political opponents and supporters.

Clarkson said the recall application failed to provide details showing the ads had partisan statements or that Dunleavy was aware of or directly involved with the ad spending.

The third charge was that Dunleavy violated separation of powers when he used a budget cut to retaliate against a court ruling. The Alaska Supreme Court in February upheld a decision that prevented restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortions. Dunleavy cut nearly $335,000 from the Supreme Court’s budget, explaining that that’s the amount the state pays to cover elective abortions under Medicaid. The petition said Dunleavy also vetoed constitutionally required health, education and welfare funding.

Clarkson said: “The governor’s use of the constitutionally granted line-item veto authority is absolutely legal, purely discretionary, and disputes over policy cannot be grounds for recall.”

The fourth charge was that Dunleavy acted incompetently when he mistakenly vetoed about $18 million more than he had told legislators he was going to cut. If the error hadn’t been fixed, it would have cost the state some $40 million more in federal Medicaid funds. Clarkson said a typographical error is not grounds for recall.

The recall campaign was launched August 1 and was able to quickly gather more signatures than needed. The application needed the signatures of ten percent of those who voted in the last general election, or 28,501 signatures. On Sept. 5, the campaign turned in 49,000 signatures.

Recall campaign manager Claire Pywell told the Anchorage Daily News, “Over 60% of people who participated in the first round of signature gathering are registered nonpartisan or undeclared voters.” And more than a dozen business, labor, civic and political leaders signed a letter to the Peninsula Clarion saying the recall effort is a broad, bipartisan, Alaskan-driven movement.

Still, Dunleavy blames the recall on special interests. “These folks started to talk about a recall a mere two months into my term and it’s more about the agenda I was elected on and the agenda I am implementing that some of the folks on the left don’t agree with,” Dunleavy said earlier this month in an interview with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto.

However, it’s been widely reported in Alaska media that Dunleavy is failing to live up to, and even is working at cross purposes to promises he made as a candidate.

No doubt thousands of Alaskans signed the recall petition due to dismay, anger, and fear about budget cuts of $440 million Dunleavy sought, then dropped to $200 million as the recall effort gained steam.

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Map showing communities served by the Alaska Marine Highway System, many of which will have ferry service reduced or cut for months at a time. (Screenshot by Joaqlin Estus)

Many Alaskans find some cuts particularly worrying or galling. The state Chamber of Commerce has come out in support of funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System, one of the first services Alaska instituted after statehood in 1959.

Thousands of Alaskans in coastal communities rely on state ferries to travel to larger communities for medical care, shopping, and other services, and export seafood and other goods by ferry. Towns otherwise accessible only by boat or plane are seeing ferry service cut from once or twice a week to no service for four or five months.

The governor initially vetoed the University of Alaska’s budget by a staggering $130 million, or 42 percent, an amount that was later reduced to $70 million and spread out over three years. Still, enrollment has fallen by as much as ten percent on different campuses due to uncertainty over whether students will be able to complete degree requirements.

In some instances, cuts seem unwarranted because they don’t save the state any money. Mt. Edgecumbe, a boarding school for Alaska Native students who live in villages too small for a local high school, recently opened a $26 million swimming pool. After just two semesters of use, the pool has closed its doors because Dunleavy vetoed its authority to collect entrance fees from the public.

The Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention is the state’s largest public gathering, and the nation’s largest representative meeting of Native Americans. At the 2019 AFN convention held in Fairbanks in October, protestors interrupted Dunleavy’s speech. Native leaders admonished the protestors, saying however much they disagree with the governor, he was a guest and should be treated with respect. However, the convention’s theme, “Good Government, Alaskan Driven.” itself was a repudiation of Dunleavy’s approach to governance.

Throughout the convention, youth read aloud sections of the state constitution to the thousands of delegates and participants. The audience considered and discussed good governance in areas such as education, health services, infrastructure, public safety and justice. Repeatedly, individuals described the shortage or lack of state services in rural Alaska.

Most poignant were the stories of murdered, missing, and sexually assaulted Native women. One third of Alaska villages lack law enforcement of any kind.

Alaska Native leaders say the governor’s budget cuts disproportionately hurt predominantly Native rural areas, where villages are not connected by road.

If the application had been certified, the next step would have been for the campaign to gather signatures equal to 25 percent of the voters in the last election, or 71,000 signatures. If that requirement was met, the division of elections would hold a special election asking Alaskans whether the governor should be recalled from office.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a long-time Alaskan journalist.

Disclaimer: Recall Dunleavy chair and spokesperson Meda DeWitt is the author’s second cousin.

For more information:

Department of Law opinion on recall petition

Division of Elections decision