Indian Country Today
Critics say the pairing of some legislative districts in Anchorage will diminish the clout of a racially diverse neighborhood while adding a state Senate seat for a predominantly White, heavily Republican area.
The decision “opens the board up to an unfortunate and very easily winnable argument to partisan gerrymandering,” said Alaska Redistricting Board member Nicole Borromeo, Athabascan. She’s one of two Alaska Native board members who voted against the pairing.
Every 10 years states redraw maps of legislative districts to reflect the latest U.S. Census data.
For Anchorage, it’s like a giant puzzle to figure out how to set up Senate districts made up of two House districts that share a border. It’s Alaska’s largest city and home to 291,000 people, or 40 percent of the state’s population.
Separated from the Anchorage bowl by an 8-mile stretch of wilderness are the communities of Eagle River and Chugiak, population 36,000. The heavily Republican community of Eagle River’s two state House districts are 75 percent White and 4 percent Alaska Native. Median incomes there are $100,000 to $125,000 annually, according to the race and income figures from Demographer Eric Sandberg at the Alaska Department of Labor.
In east Anchorage are two legislative districts that include the Muldoon neighborhood. They’re about 55 percent White and 9 percent Alaska Native. Median incomes there are $55,000 to $90,000 annually. Borromeo said Muldoon “contains some of the highest minority voting age population concentrations in Anchorage and one of the most diverse neighborhoods in our country.”
Amid heated debates, the three Republican-appointed board members voted 3 to 2 on Nov. 9 to pair two Eagle River districts with two Muldoon districts.
Adding the predominantly White population of Eagle River to Muldoon districts will boost Muldoon from 55 percent White to 66 percent, and drop the Alaska Native percentage of its population from 9 percent to 6 or 7 percent. It will also give Eagle River control of an additional Senate seat.
Board member Bethany Marcum said this configuration meets the requirement that districts be socioeconomically integrated. Marcum is CEO of Alaska Policy Forum, a state policy nonprofit, and a citizen airman in the Alaska Air National Guard.
“When people from Eagle River come to town, they drive down Muldoon (Road),” Marcum said. “I've driven that route myself many times. When I lived in Eagle River, I drove up through Muldoon to get to midtown to work. That is where we stop and where we shop and where we get gas when we're going back and forth to Eagle River.”
Board member Borromeo is executive vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives, a statewide Alaska Native advocacy organization. She said, “I see no reasonable explanation for splitting Muldoon.” Borromeo said about 95 percent of public testimony supported keeping the two Eagle River districts together, and the two Muldoon districts together.
Marcum said, “the truth is these areas have a long and close relationship and you should have no concerns about combining residents, or that most Eagle Rivers would have any serious objection.”
Eagle River residents did object to being lumped in with the Anchorage municipality in 1961, and formed their own borough in 1974, which was ruled unconstitutional. Since then, residents periodically have talked about seceding from Anchorage. The latest such effort would break off Eagle River, Chugiak, and the military’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, but leave Muldoon as part of Anchorage.
However, Marcum said, “the question of whether Eagle River is part of the municipality of Anchorage was resolved more than 48 years ago. Yes, it is (part of Anchorage). While it may be a somewhat friendlier, safer part of Anchorage, Eagle River is as much a part of the muni as (several other neighborhoods). Our town of Eagle River functions in no small part as a bedroom community to the military base and to parts of Anchorage.”
Marcum said ties between Eagle River and the military base, which is north of Muldoon, in particular, are close. “This is not widely known, but the Chugiak, Eagle River and Muldoon area is home to more military, both active duty and retired, than anywhere else in the state,” she said. And those military people commute through Muldoon to the base, mingling at grocery stores and while exercising or recreating, Marcum said. “This creates a cohesion that is important to us.”
As for race, “there's never been a concern,” Marcum said. “There's never been anybody raise race, the race situation where they feel like they don't have their representation.”
“I certainly don't see people in that area by race. I know lots of people live in that area and I see them as people who are closely tied to the people of Eagle River. We've heard testimony to that effect,” she said.
The changes would “provide Eagle River with more representation,” Marcum said.
Borromeo said the board’s decision to pair Muldoon district 18 with Eagle River district 24 “is not only an example of partisan gerrymandering, it is a direct path for future litigants to take us on in suing us.” The final plan also pairs the military's district 21 with Eagle River district 22.
Borromeo added, “...I don't know why you would ever consider splitting Eagle River, unless you were trying to expand Eagle River's reach in the Senate...”
She said, “It defies logic that we would do a minority reach-in to south Muldoon and pair it with a very White district eight miles away on a highway that crosses one mountain range and expect the court to believe with any satisfaction that we have satisfied the public trust in the process.”
Barromeo also said, “I don't believe Eagle river has a special claim to the (military) base. I feel like there's several other neighborhoods in Anchorage that share that connection to the base.”
Board member Melanie Bahnke, Native Village of Savoonga, had offered an alternative map, which the board adopted on Sept. 20, 2021. She said that plan “kept Eagle River intact, kept Muldoon intact, eliminated the questions around dilutions of minority voters’ ability to elect somebody into office.” Bahnke is president of Kawerak, a regional non-profit based in Nome, in northwest Alaska.
She said the majority’s choice was voted in quickly and with inadequate public input on the new plan. “The action that was just taken came as a complete surprise to me,” Bahnke said. “I thought we had achieved consensus. I will accept the outcome, for now.” The board issued its final proclamation Nov. 10.
Corrected to say Anchorage "municipality" instead of "borough" and to correct spelling of Melanie Bahnke's name.
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