Months before Alaska’s state elections, the Legislature is set for major turnover.
At least 17 of the Legislature’s 60 members will be in a new position or out of office entirely by next January — and that doesn’t count anyone who loses their seat this fall.
The deadline to file for this year’s legislative elections is June 1, but many candidates have already made up their minds.
Because a steep learning curve awaits new legislators, several departing incumbents said the turnover will slow the progress of complicated legislation, such as a long-awaited state fiscal plan.
“We’re continuing to lose experience, and I think that’s extremely harmful for our state and the Legislature,” said Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage. “I find one of the big challenges is just getting everyone on the same page, as far as basic facts about the budget, how the legislative process works, and we’re gonna have to start at ground zero for a lot of new folks.”
Others said the turnover may result in changes in leadership of the state House and Senate, including the possibility of a Republican-controlled House or a coalition-controlled Senate.
By the end of the day Friday, 10 incumbents had declared that they will not seek reelection.
Another five members of the House are running for Senate or governor, and at least one more is considering a similar jump. Redistricting will claim another two House incumbents.
Change in the Senate
In the 20-person Senate, four legislators aren’t running for reelection, including Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. The others are Sens. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River; Josh Revak, R-Anchorage; and Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage.
“It’s incredibly unusual. In my lifetime in the Senate, I don’t remember that many incumbents retiring,” said former Senate President Cathy Giessel. She spent 10 years in the Senate before losing in the 2020 Republican primary. She is now running again.
“That’s some big turnover in the Senate,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, who is seeking reelection.
Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, decided against running for reelection in order to address an unspecified family issue.
“There is a lot of turnover this year. I think that legislative years are like dog years in some respects,” Spohnholz said, referring to the demands they place on individual lawmakers.
Over the past two years, lawmakers were in session at the Capitol for 338 days, more than any other two-year term in state history.
Some of the departing legislators described days away from their families, deeply polarized political arguments and the financial strain that comes from having to maintain two households.
“I think some of the people that have been there have either felt that they can’t get things done, or their personal life is calling them back for whatever reason, whether that’s personal, financial or the other challenges of dedicating your life to public service,” said Rep. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage, who is now running for state Senate.
‘Difficult work environment’
Schrage attributed the turnover to “a difficult work environment,” which includes the stress of COVID, legislators separated from their families by long sessions, “and I think it’s also a result of the fact that, frankly, you have to make a huge financial sacrifice to serve in the Legislature.”
“It’s really difficult for a lot of people, and I’m just not surprised to see the level of turnover that we’re seeing,” he said.
Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, isn’t seeking reelection. She described being away from her young children, including her son, who began kindergarten this year.
She said redistricting also played a factor.
“The composition of the district I’m in is significantly more challenging for a Republican to win,” Rasmussen said.
Long House list
In the state House, the departing incumbents include Reps. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka; Kaufman; Rasmussen; Spohnholz; Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage; Ken McCarty, R-Eagle River; Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River; Christopher Kurka, R-Wasilla; Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks; Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks; and Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel.
Kaufman, Tarr, McCarty and Merrick are seeking seats in the Senate. Kurka is running for governor. Wool is running for U.S. House.
Redistricting has placed Anchorage Democratic Reps. Chris Tuck and Andy Josephson in the same district. Josephson has filed for reelection; Tuck had not by Friday evening.
Elsewhere in Anchorage, Democratic Reps. Zack Fields and Harriet Drummond are now in the same district. Fields has filed for reelection and Drummond had not through Friday.
Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, said he is considering a run for state Senate against Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, but hasn’t yet decided.
Though most lawmakers said the expected turnover will make work more difficult next year, Micciche both downplayed the size of the change and its effects.
“I don’t think it’s anything new,” he said. “There are transitions to every political body, periodically.”
“The dynamics will change, and that change may be positive. I don’t see that as a negative thing. I don’t have a fear of who replaces us. … That change in dynamics may be what it takes to get some of these longstanding issues, statutory improvements, that are much needed. I think groups kind of dig into their positions, and new faces may be the catalyst that shakes things loose on some very positive forward motion for the state,” he said.
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