Thanks to the Republican-led legislative redistricting board, two Anchorage Democrats, both progressive, are shoved into a new downtown midtown district and running against each other.
Harriet Drummond and Zack Fields, both incumbents, are competing for the seat in a new district where the boundary lines were redrawn. One of the two will not return to Juneau.
Is this a strategy by the Republican board to remove influential Democrats from the state House? It seems that way.
Having one less Democrat, depending on how other close races play out, increases the odds of a Republican state House Majority. The result will likely be a House that hard-right legislators from the Mat-Su Valley dominate.
The current state House is almost evenly split but led, by a hair-thin margin, by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats. That coalition kept at bay a far-right conservative Republican agenda led by right-wing lawmakers from the Mat-Su, which due to their numbers, dominated the Republican caucus.
A closely-split House is expected again after the November election. But who will be in charge? Either another moderate coalition or the far-right, but it all depends on the outcome of a few races.
One is incumbent Rep. Andy Josephson’s close race in Anchorage District 13. Josephson, a Democrat, was one vote down from Katherine Henslee, the Republican, in the August primary election.
Drummond is well known
Drummond is well known after serving in elected office on the local or state level for years and representing essentially the same neighborhoods of Anchorage.
She is originally from New York City and has a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell circa 1974. She arrived in Anchorage in 1976, coming north with a boyfriend to work on the pipeline - the classic Alaska story.
She married, had a family, and became interested in local schools as her children began their education.
Drummond was elected to Anchorage’s school board in 1994, where she served until “terming out” in 2003. She was also elected to Anchorage’s municipal assembly in 2002, representing west Anchorage. In 2012, she was elected to the Legislature to represent the Spenard and Midtown districts.
She is now completing her fourth term in the state House after ten years of serving on the House Education Committee. She was either chair or vice chair of the committee for the last six years and has become the de facto education expert in the state House.
Legislators are tasked to serve on other committees dealing with other subjects, and Drummond serves on four other House committees as well as seven agency budget subcommittees.
Fields: Special interest in workforce legislation
Fields, originally from Virginia, has spent ten years in Anchorage. He says he was drawn to Alaska because of its outdoors and loves skiing, biking, camping, and fishing.
On arriving in the state, Fields began work for Democratic legislative candidates and the Democratic Party and also worked in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development on workforce and apprenticeship development.
One key accomplishment was an apprenticeship program for the Alaska Primary Care Association that is now being expanded to other healthcare fields.
Fields has served two terms in the Legislature representing Downtown Anchorage and has gained a reputation in the state House for aggressive promotion of worker health and safety as well as training. In the House, he was most recently co-chair of the House Labor and Commerce Committee. He is best known for advancing a committee bill that would have expanded apprenticeship programs for young people, including establishing dual-credit Career and Technical programs in high school so students can move into accelerated technical apprenticeships when they graduate high school.
“High school students also should have opportunities to pursue and receive credit for career and technical education courses that prepare them for living wage careers in growth industries, ranging from mining to health care,” Fields said.
By strengthening apprenticeship, school to apprenticeship, and other career and technical education programs, HB 132 would have also ensured employers access to highly skilled workers and ensure graduating seniors can earn a living wage while working toward a college degree, he explained.
The bill passed the House but was stopped in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, which is chaired by Republican Sen. Mia Costello, also of Anchorage.
Fields also sponsored bills that would allow tax credits for child care and allow charitable gambling on the internet. HB 128 also passed the House but was stopped in Costello’s Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.
Republican redistricting jumbled Anchorage districts
House District 17, where Drummond and Fields are squaring off, begins on Fireweed Lane at the Seward and takes in all of the North Star Community Council area including Valley of the Moon.
From Fireweed Lane at Arctic Blvd, the boundary goes south one block and then west along 25th Avenue to Spenard Road, then south on Spenard a block, then west on 26th to Minnesota Drive.
It goes south on Minnesota to Northern Lights Boulevard, then north along the Alaska Railroad tracks to Second Avenue to downtown. It crosses Chester Creek and Westchester Lagoon and to Bootleggers Cove, Inlet View, and South Addition to Huntington Park and Forest Park on the west.
The boundary zig-zags slightly south to Fourth Avenue downtown, then east to Juneau Street, south one block to Fifth, east to Airport Heights Drive, then south to DeBarr Road, and west to Lake Otis Boulevards.
The boundary then goes south on Lake Otis to East 20th, then west on 20th to divide Eastridge, and adds the northern part to downtown and Fairview. It proceeds east on 20th through Eastchester Park then follows Chester Creek for a short way and emerges at the Seward Highway again, turning south to the starting point at Fireweed Lane.
“These boundaries follow almost no geographic features,” Drummond said.
“My old district was defined by Chester Creek on the north and Fish Creek on the west. Many neighborhoods were cut up and separated among different districts. I’ve run across a number of residents who are rather upset about this blatant disregard of traditional neighborhood boundaries.”
“The south part of Eastridge got attached to Rogers Park and new House District 14, which takes in a large part of my old district, HD18, including Midtown, Geneva Woods, and most of Spenard. HD14 also includes College Village, which was part of Andy Josephson’s HD17, jumps the AKRR tracks and Fish Creek to take in eastern Turnagain, which is fondly nicknamed ‘Spenardagain.”
Alyse Galvin got almost 68-percent of the vote in this district (in August), and I’m confident she’ll be the new HD14 representative. A few blocks off the eastern end of HD 18, a small neighborhood called Anchor Park, bounded on the north by Chester Creek, was sliced off the Rogers Park neighborhood and attached to Airport Heights on the east side of Lake Otis Drive in new HD 19, which I’m also confident will be represented by Genevieve Mina, the Democratic candidate there.
To-do list: Funding for education
What is stop on Drummond’s to-do list if voters return her to Juneau is tackling anew the underfunding of schools and teachers’ pay and benefits. She worries about losing professional talent in Alaska as young people leave. “Business leaders like Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., are saying one in three Alaskans under 26 are leaving. That is compounded by a declining birth rate and less funding for schools and training. Without a workforce, we’re in trouble,” she said.
Drummond is particularly focused on tightening school financing as several years of inflation, falling enrollment, and flat state funding take a toll. Anchorage is looking at a $68 million deficit next year, she said, with a possible closure of six elementary schools and elimination of programs like language immersion.
Class sizes could rise, too. “I can’t imagine a Kindergarten class with 40 children,” she says, but that’s possible.
Compounding this is that even if class sizes can be held even or reduced, “we’re unable to find teachers,” Drummond said. On a national level, fewer young people are entering the profession, mainly because of social and political pressures on teachers in the classroom. It may not be an attractive profession for young people anymore.
Alaska is no longer to rely on out-of-state recruitment with higher pay because many Lower 48 school districts in the Pacific Northwest, for example, pay on par, or higher than Alaska’s larger districts can offer. Additionally, Alaska’s lack of competitive benefits packages for all public employees, not just teachers, is a red flag in recruiting.
The University of Alaska is not graduating enough teachers to meet the need, so Alaska school districts must recruit 600 to 700 teachers from out of state yearly. That’s tough to achieve mainly because of poor compensation and working conditions, like large classes.
Democrats in the state House made a strong push this year for more state funding through an inflation adjustment to the Base Student Allocation, or BSA, the formula that sets out state support for schools. Unfortunately, the BSA hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 2017, and funds for schools have lost about 15 percent of their purchasing power.
That effort foundered when the legislation making the adjustment was kept in the House Finance Committee, thanks mainly to two Republicans, Reps. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, and Sarah Rasmuson, R-Anchorage.
Meanwhile, a bill addressing the benefits challenge, and that would have created an option for teachers and other public employees to select a Defined Benefits retirement plan option instead of the current Defined Contribution (basically a 402-k type plan) passed the House but died in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee after being held there by Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage.
Drummond is also unhappy with how Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who is running for reelection, vetoed most state funds appropriated by the Legislature to allow school districts, including Anchorage, to get caught up on a backlog of major maintenance.
The state had a windfall in oil revenue, and the Legislature appropriated $100 million. For this, the governor vetoed all but $37 million, leaving about $60 million in projects still unfunded.
All that leaves a lot of damage for pro-education legislators to undo, but they have to first get to Juneau.