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We Build Alaska

Dispatches from Juneau: Day 1 of the legislative session

The rainy cold does little to dampen the overwhelming sense of urgency in Alaska’s capital city. My Monday flight to Juneau is packed with members of our state’s political class: legislators, lobbyists, and even Governor Mike Dunleavy (R – Alaska) have all folded themselves into cramped airplane seats, en route to the start of the 33rd session of the Alaska Legislature. Sideways rain batters the windows as the plane drops through a thick cloud bank and touches down on the runway at the edge of the Mendenhall Wetlands.

I’m staying with Landmine Editor and Publisher Jeff Landfield in a cinderblock hotel building at the bottom of Juneau’s main hill. The location, near a liquor store and the capitol, seems ideal for the coming weeks. After interviewing Anchorage metalheads, describing the Kenai River during dipnetting season, and going to a gun show in a school gym, Jeff rolled the dice and shelled out the cash to bring me to Alaska’s capital. I’ve been assigned to try and describe my impressions of the legislative session for the readers who don’t have the luxury of following arcane budget movements and interpersonal politics in person. I’m a real adult with an actual job.

The second I drop my bags on my hotel bed, Jeff and I are off to tour the capitol ahead of the official start of the legislative session. Already, staffers are milling around, legislators new and old are moving into offices, and nametags are being affixed to doors. The State Senate is already organized, so there’s structure to their movements, but the State House is up in the air. A group of 21 Republicans (including some fairly controversial ones) has been threatened, bluffed, and then disproven about forming a majority.

Around every corner, Landfield is asking people if they know anything about who will be in the majority – but nobody will say. When questioned about the potential for a majority, people either clam up and turn away, or laugh and repeat the question back to him. Some seem legitimately curious if he knows anything. Either they’re being intentionally cagey and putting up a unified front, or nobody really knows anything. The only person to give us a straight answer, on the first day of session, is Representative Josiah Patkotak (I – Utqiagvik), who tells us that he’ll be in the majority.

The early midwinter nightfall is exacerbated by the mountains looming overhead. It seems that you’re always walking uphill here, which reminds me of my college town, where jaunts in between classrooms necessitated near sprints up and down rolling wheat hills. I’m sweating as we go to get my press pass, and I’m kicking myself for forgetting my Xtratufs at home, as I step around another puddle. My girlfriend describes my face in the picture I send of my new press credentials as “crazed,” which seems an accurate summation of my mental state.

Governor Dunleavy is walking around the capitol, shaking hands with legislators, and Landfield remarks that he’s never seen him do that in the last four years. Given the tumultuous state of the House, one wouldn’t blame him for looking concerned, but as Jeff snaps a picture of him in front of his official governor portrait on the third floor, Dunleavy looks relaxed, almost at ease.

The evening before the session starts, both parties have organized fundraiser blowouts. The Republicans are downtown, with a cash bar, and the Democrats are up the hill in a private residence across from the Governor’s Mansion. Their booze is free. It’s almost enough to make me switch party affiliations. Spirits are high at both, for the most part, and Landfield is almost ubiquitously recognized.

My hotel bathroom is missing the showerhead, and the bath drains so slowly as to be nonexistent. I tell myself that these inconveniences will help me build character for a young “journalist.”

The first day of the legislative session dawns cloudy and wet, which, in Juneau, is like saying the sun rises hot and bright. The objective of the hour, says Jeff, who is live-tweeting events from the Senate swearing in ceremony, is to attain the list of the Senate committee assignments before it’s officially announced. And somehow, he does – from some mysterious source. I learned there is a committee that is actually called the Committee on Committees, made up of Senate leadership, that figures all this out. Weird name for a committee.

The changing of the guard goes smoothly, though we’re stuck between overflow viewing and the actual chambers. I can hear Lieutenant Governor Nancy Dahlstrom (R – Alaska) over the speakers and then, from the overflow room down the hall, the same speech ten seconds later. The delay gives the whole affair an air of surreality: politics heard through a John Cage lens, or something equally experimental. The Senate is organized as quickly as it’s possible for a group of 19 people to organize. Senator Mike Shower (R – Wasilla), who’s been relegated to one special committee, is conspicuously absent and no one knows why. The rumor, repeated by Senate President Gary Stevens (R – Kodiak) during a press conference later in the day, is that there’s an unknown family issue, but no one’s sure.

On the House side, they decide unanimously to nominate Representative Patkotak as the speaker pro tempore, though not before Representative Andy Josephson (D – Anchorage) moves for Representative Justin Ruffridge (R – Soldotna) to become the pro tempore. After several minutes of procedural amendments to adjourn, they vote to come back Wednesday morning. The hope–perhaps ill-placed–is that some kind of majority will come together out of the chaos.

But to tell you the truth, I have no fucking idea.

One thing that strikes me about the entire experience is how casual everything seems for an organization responsible for billions of dollars. Behind closed office doors, jokes are made and stories of a wilder Alaska in the 1970s and 1980s are swapped, and then the same people go out and abide by manuals of order and codexes of legislative process to permanently alter or maintain the political (and actual) landscape of the state. The urgency I felt on the plane is somehow unaccompanied by stress. Were it not for the armed security and the knowledge that these are all elected lawmakers, you’d think it was summer camp for adults.

I think ahead to what I’d like to do here in Juneau. Maybe more long-form profiles of legislators and staffers, and perhaps, when the House organizes, concoct a series attempting to make some kind of narrative out of the legislative process. Maybe I’ll con my way into finding a rich benefactor lobbyist willing to throw a cool million my way to act as some kind of in-house press guy/personal court jester. Until then, I need to get my shower drain snaked and find a beer. Happy start-of-legislative-session-day to all who celebrate!

This morning Representative Cathy Tilton (R – Wasilla) was elected Speaker of the House by a vote of 26-14. 

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1 year ago

I dig it.