There’s a new administration in the Anchorage Mayor’s Office and next spring, voters will cast ballots for new Assembly members in districts across town.
Despite the turnover in City Hall and the Assembly chambers, one fundamental part of local government remains unchanged. For 30 years, the makeup of the city’s legislative branch has followed the same lines. South Anchorage, Midtown, West Anchorage, East Anchorage and Chugiak and Eagle River all elect two representatives. Downtown is different.
One of the most culturally and economically diverse areas in Anchorage, District One has been represented by a single Assembly member for three decades.
There are stark differences between the neighborhoods within the district. Mountain View, Fairview, Government Hill, South Addition and Downtown split sharply along socio-economic and other demographic lines.
Is it time to change the status quo and shift Anchorage’s election districts? That depends on whom you ask.
“There are some neighborhoods, like South Addition, that claim they’re underrepresented,” said Assemblyman Dick Traini. “But they’re not.”
The Anchorage Charter mandates an 11-member Assembly. If the municipality establishes election districts, the Charter states, those districts “shall be formed of compact and contiguous territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socioeconomic area.”
When the City of Anchorage and the surrounding borough consolidated into the Municipality of Anchorage in 1975, original election districts called for two representatives everywhere but Chugiak/Eagle River, which was the first single-member district. Following the 1980 census, District Two expanded to cover Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and parts of Russian Jack and Muldoon, District One shrank to a single-member district and it’s been that way ever since.
“When the chart was put together, there was a thought that we’d change it from time to time,” said Traini, who represents Midtown.
Currently, the downtown district is represented by Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, whose term expires in 2017. The single-member district has its pros and cons, Flynn said.
With its smaller geographic area and population, it’s easier to pound the pavement and meet constituents in District One than, say, a far-flung neighborhood in Chugiak or South Anchorage. On the other hand, there’s no second representative to share the work.
When you’re also raising a family and holding down a day job, sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. If there’s a conflict of interest and you have to recuse yourself from a vote, your district may be out of luck. When district-specific issues arise, there’s one less voice speaking out for the area.
“It’s me, me or me, so pick which one you want,” Flynn said.
“What I have found as the guy who represents the area, is that it’s really important to develop strong ties with other members of the Assembly, so that when you bring issues that are sort of district-specific to the floor, they’re willing to give you some credence.”
Technically, there’s no problem with the current system, lawmakers say.
Guided by federal law, Anchorage’s election districts are based on population. District One, with its single representative, has approximately half the population of districts with two elected Assembly members. But some say there’s more to it than that.
“The numbers are only part of the story,” said Daniel George, president of the Mountain View Community Council. “You have to look at the diversity of the community inside the district.”
In Bootlegger’s Cove, at the western end of District One, a three-bedroom condominium can run you upwards of $2 million, poverty is virtually nonexistent and residents are predominantly middle-aged and white.
Head a few miles east, and you’ll find a very different kind of neighborhood. In Mountain View, according to U.S. Census Data, poverty rates are among the highest in the city. Most residents are under the age of 30. Streets are dotted with aging apartment complexes and new affordable housing developments. People who live there come from every corner of the map, making it one of the most ethnically diverse places in the United States.
The current election district lines bring up issues of social justice, George said. Are minority ethnic groups equally represented? Mountain View and Fairview and Downtown neighborhoods use a disproportionate amount of city services; Is one representative voice enough?
“It’s caused me some concern,” the community council president said. “We don’t have a homogenous district, and so having more than one voice being able to articulate those positions is important.”
He’s not alone with that concern. There were attempts to change city charter and reconfigure Assembly seats in the ‘90s, then again about a decade later. Several years ago, when the issue of redistricting last came before the Assembly, the president of the Fairview Community Council spoke out against the longstanding system. The Mountain View Community Council’s Executive Board contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which encouraged the Council to contact the Department of Justice.
“We actually thought we had a case,” George said.
But when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the case became less cut-and-dry. Today, reconfiguring Anchorage’s election districts would require a vote of the Assembly, according to Traini, the body’s chairman. The current map is legal: Why change?
Flynn—in his final term as District One’s one representative—is less absolute about Anchorage’s election district map.
“It’s technically compliant,” he said. “Whether it’s appropriate to have one member for [District One] for three decades is another question.”
In Mountain View, George says he’s been approached by neighbors asking why the area has only one representative when every other district in town has two. But change happens slowly—if at all. Redrawing district lines would mean shifting at least one two-member district to a one-member district, possibly unseating incumbents. When it’s up to those same incumbents to change the system, new district maps seem more like a distant fantasy.
“Any time you are potentially putting someone out of a job, it’s a difficult position,” the community council president said. “I think there’s a degree of, ‘Don’t rock the boat.’”
But the boat hasn’t rocked in 30 years. One of the most diverse areas in town has the least diverse representation, and people who live there continue to wonder when talk of change will turn into action.
“If not now, when?” George asked.