Story last updated at 10/31/2012 - 2:28 pm
Imagine politics as a bit of a dance. You step forward, the legislator steps back; you sway left, he sways right; the moves ebb and flow and you're both comfortable with how each other moves.
Well, the dance caller has just thrown you both for a spin, and called for a partner change.
This is a bit how redistricting feels for some of Southeast's legislators this election season. Some of them have to learn all new moves with all new partners in order to be reelected.
Representative Bill Thomas, R-Haines, is running for re-election, and as an 8-year incumbent he facing a district that's 55-60 percent new to him. The Redistricting Board gave his district the City and Borough of Sitka, Pelican, Elfin Cove, Port Alexander and Baranof Warm Springs, while taking away Tatitlik, Chenega, Cordova, Yakutat, Skagway and Tenakee Springs.
"I'm playing catch up right now," Thomas said. "Our district is one of the last ones they sliced up and redistricted. We didn't know where we were going to end up. For a while, I thought I was going to end up in North Juneau. They ended up changing that."
Thomas also is playing catch-up because when he's not working as a legislator, his trade is commercial fisherman.
So far, Thomas has found the concerns of his new "dance partners" to be the same as elsewhere in Southeast - but bigger.
"Energy," Thomas said. "Sitka needs a new hydro extension on their dam in their hydro. Most of the villages just need hydro, period. They're the fishing communities also. That's one thing they have in common."
Thomas feels the redistricting has weakened Southeast.
"That's because we lost so much population though," he said. "We have hardly any economy to reign in new people. I think we just have to work a little harder, that's the size of it."
Thomas said that based on letters he's received from the constituents he's leaving - it feels like a break up.
"Maybe they just got me broken in," he said. "They're able to talk to me pretty easily and I can meet their needs."
Thomas said he's had to start all over with Sitka and is trying to understand what their needs are.
"Everyone is different," he said. "I told them, you tell me what your needs are. I won't tell you what your needs are."
The change in Southeast's Senate representation is a bit more tumultuous of a spin - as redistricting has pitted two incumbents against one another.
Sen. Albert Kookesh, Jr., D-Angoon, and Sen. Robert Stedman, R-Sitka, are facing off in an altered district.
For Kookesh, the district has changed vastly. Prior to redistricting - for the past 10 years - he served 126 communities from Metlakatla to Russian Mission across 225,000 square miles of land. It was the largest Senate district in the United States, he said. Of Alaska's 52 school district, he served 25. His district had half of the 12 Alaska Native regional corporations, nine national wildlife refuges and eight national parks.
That's shrunk to 34 communities, and only those entities in Southeast.
"I went from multi-Native population, to a population where the Native population is really small," Kookesh said. "The villages in the north are almost 90 percent Alaska Native. It's mostly a challenge because I'm going into three communities I have never represented before - Sitka, Ketchikan, Wrangell. Sixty percent of the voting population of the district. Those three communities were in Sen. Stedman's former district, so about 30 percent of my district left and he has 70 percent of his left."
What is also a challenge for Southeast from redistricting is the loss of not just a House representative, but also a senator.
"That's a huge change in the legislator when a huge percentage of legislators come from Anchorage and Wasilla," Kookesh said. "They have seven or eight in House and Senate. So when you lose a senator in Southeast Alaska that just makes it a lot harder. You're going to lose a member of the house as well. Your influence and voting power in senate and the house is diminished. I think the redistricting for constituents is almost equal to their loss of votes in the House and Senate in Southeast. If you have a capital move bill in the next election, you have one less representative and one less senator to vote against it. If a bill comes up to fund a new ferry, there will be one less vote to vote for it. It just impacts all over."
Kookesh said the election battle has been uphill for him because of redistricting.
"It's not mine to lose," he said. "It's Sen. Stedman's district to lose. I'm going from a representative of a constituency that's no longer my constituency. Sen. Stedman has been a fine senator over the years. I just see myself as a really uphill battle."
Sarah Day is the editor of Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.