Fairbanks senators testify redistrict plan is gerrymandering

Matt Buxton
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
January 9, 2012

FAIRBANKS — Sens. Joe Paskvan and Joe Thomas told a judge they believe the state’s redistricting plan to pair the two Democratic lawmakers into the same Senate district was political gerrymandering intended to eliminate one of them, making room for a Republican.

The two Fairbanks Democrats testified in court Monday during the first day of an expected two-week trial of the state’s redrawn election district lines.

Much of the attention in the lawsuit so far has focused on compactness of House District 38, which pairs Ester and Goldstream Valley, where plaintiffs George Riley and Ron Dearborn live, with parts of the Denali Borough and the western coast.

The redistricting board has maintained the federal Voting Rights Act required them to violate the Alaska Constitution’s requirements for compactness and socio-economic contiguity in districts to protect Alaska Native voting power.

The latest development has focused on Senate pairings. Under the state’s redistricting rules, two adjacent House districts can be paired together to make a Senate district. But the plaintiff’s attorney, Michael Walleri, argued those pairings don’t make sense.

“What we’re going to be talking about is the irrational Senate pairings,” Walleri said during opening arguments. “You’ve got these cities mish-mashed together, you’ve got boroughs mish-mashed together.”

Under the plan, the west Fairbanks district has been paired with a district north of Fairbanks

containing Farmers Loop, Fox and Two Rivers. East Fairbanks is paired with North Pole. The Chena Ridge, College and Tanana Flats areas are paired with Salcha.

Traditionally, the west and east Fairbanks districts constitute one Senate district, which is filled by Paskvan. By pairing west Fairbanks, where Paskvan lives, with the Farmers Loop, Fox and Two Rivers district, where Thomas lives, one of the senators has been drawn out of a seat, Walleri said.

While most districts are connected through long borders, the Senate district in question only shares a few hundred feet, further proof, Walleri said, that political motivations were at play.

When Paskvan took the stand to testify, he said the pairing was immediately suspect.

“When I looked at it and for the very first time became aware of the proposed pairing not with the east side and west side, but the west side and this massive area north of Fairbanks, the word that came to mind is gerrymandering,” he said.

In his opening arguments, the Alaska Redistricting Board’s attorney, Michael White, countered both of the Senate seats will maintain representation for the borough and neither of the senators have the constitutional right to expect to have their districts maintained.

The gerrymandering accusation was not outlined in the original complaint against the board.

During a pre-trial conference last week, Judge Michael McConahy said testimony alleging such political motivations could be introduced as part of the plaintiff’s rebuttal to question the credibility of the redistricting board’s testimony, but those motivations aren’t the primary issue at stake in the trial.

The main issues at stake, he said, involve the federal Voting Rights Act and issues of proportionality and compactness rules under the Alaska Constitution. Those topics will be discussed in length by experts in the federal law and redistricting board members during coming days.

The senators likely spoke Monday because the annual legislative session begins next week in Juneau.

Thomas already has filed to run for the position. Paskvan has not, but said he’s still considering a run.