Board tries to maintain status quo Southeast seat

Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- The Alaska Redistricting Board has put aside a proposal for new House districts in Southeast that would have pitted Rep. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, against Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell.

Citing overwhelming public testimony for maintaining the existing lines as closely as possible, the board Tuesday unanimously accepted an alternative map for the region from Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, a statewide coalition of Native and other groups.

The alternative extends the district now represented by Kookesh up to Cordova in Prince William Sound, gaining enough population to bring it close to the ideal district size of 15,673.

All decisions the board makes at this point are tentative, but board member Julian Mason said he doesn't think the Southeast lines will change unless there is a ripple effect from redrawing the rest of the state.

The board is meeting daily this week and June 4-8 at its headquarters in Juneau. A final plan for all the state's House and Senate districts must be adopted by June 17.

The board adopted the alternative plan for Southeast, despite concerns it will be challenged in court.

House District 5, which Kookesh represents, now stretches from the southern Panhandle to Yakutat. With Alaska Natives making up more than a third of the population, it is an official Native influence district, requiring map changes to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department.

The Redistricting Board had been concerned that extending the district into Prince William Sound would fail a constitutional requirement that districts be compact.

So the board had proposed creating a new House district with Sitka, Haines, Skagway, Yakutat and Cordova, where there would be no incumbent, and adding Wrangell and Petersburg to Kookesh's district, setting up a potential race with Wilson in 2002.

But public testimony was overwhelmingly against that proposal, board members said.

The board's attorney, Philip Volland, warned that non-compact districts are allowed if no other choices exist that would meet population requirements and conform with the federal Voting Rights Act. Given that the board already proposed a more compact map that retains a Native influence district in Southeast, it would be difficult to defend the alternative plan, Volland said.

But board member Mason said in viewing Southeast as a whole, the alternative plan is more compact.

Cordova Mayor Margy Johnson has said the city will sue if separated from Valdez and put into a Southeast House district.

A similar map was rejected by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1983, although Alaskans for Fair Redistricting says there is now more interaction between Cordova and Southeast.

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