The balance of power could shift in the Alaska House. House District 28 could be crucial

Here’s what’s at stake
Looking over the Hillside in House District 28.
Looking over the Hillside in House District 28.(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 8, 2020 at 6:57 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - James Kaufman didn’t watch early election results come in for his House District 28 primary race. He’d been campaigning all day and when he got home, he needed to eat and shower.

“So, when we did start touching base with people who were watching, it was quite a surprise,” Kaufman said in August.

The retired petroleum engineer had taken a sizable lead on election night over incumbent Rep. Jennifer Johnston for the Republican Party’s nomination. When primary results were certified, Kaufman had captured two-thirds of the GOP vote and Johnston was out.

He now faces two independent candidates for the Nov. 3 general election.

Johnston, who was first elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 2016, is declining to endorse anyone. “It is their race now,” she said by text.

Benjamin Fletcher, a former camp manager on the North Slope, is running as a non-affiliated petition nominee based out of Girdwood. “Honestly, I’m in the middle. I lean more to the left, I think they make a little more sense,” he said.

Suzanne LaFrance, an Anchorage Assembly member since 2017, took her place on the ballot from Adam Lees who won the Democratic primary. LaFrance is a nonpartisan candidate but is supported by the Alaska Democratic Party.

“They recognize that they would rather have me than my opponent,” she said.

“We are really excited about that race,” said Lindsay Kavanaugh, the executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, in September. “She would represent the state very well and she understands that district.”

Kaufman sounded skeptical about whether LaFrance could be called a nonpartisan candidate with Democratic support. “The entire thing is a ruse,” he said.

The stakes of the race

The balance of power in the Alaska House of Representatives could shift after the election and House District 28 could help decide if that happens. A bipartisan coalition has been in the majority for the past four years, and Republicans want to take control of the House in their own right in 2021.

Seven incumbent Republicans lost their primary races, including six in the House. Two of the Republican representatives who lost in the GOP primary are current members of the bipartisan coalition, including Johnston.

The possibility of a shift to the right in the House motivated LaFrance to run against what she calls “extreme partisan candidates.” It also motivated the Alaska Democrats to broaden which races are considered competitive, believing that some conservative GOP candidates may be unpalatable when it’s not just party members who vote.

“We are certainly looking at additional pick-up opportunities across the state,” Kavanaugh said.

LaFrance said that she could potentially caucus with Republicans “if they are fiscally responsible” but that she would more likely join the bipartisan coalition.

“We’re giving this everything we can because this race is so important,” she added.

Contributions have poured into both campaigns.

Kaufman has raised over $61,000 while LaFrance has raised nearly $49,000, according to her most recent campaign filings.

Fletcher’s campaign has reported no contributions to the Alaska Public Offices Commission. “It is a concern, but I feel like word of mouth is the strongest way that the message gets out,” he said.

Kaufman is also being opposed by an Outside group that tries to flip state legislatures Democratic. The American Leadership Committee is contributing $14,000 against his campaign, in addition to four other state races.

The group is not allowed under state and federal law to coordinate with any candidate.

The fiscal issues facing voters

While the primaries saw victories for conservative Republicans who support big Permanent Fund Dividends and big budget cuts, Kaufman is pitching himself as something different: a candidate who is focused on getting more value out of state spending.

“We just really need to take a look at how we do things and how we can do them better,” he said.

Kaufman explained that he wants to take a deep look at the budget, particularly at education, to see if reforms can be made. He said concerns about cutting state services are often because someone has a stake in the status quo.

“Many that are concerned with what you would call ‘cuts,’ somehow they’re directly touched by that,” Kaufman said. “It’s somehow related to their income or income of someone in their family.”

The focus of LaFrance’s campaign is protecting core services, the Permanent Fund from being overdrawn and trying to prevent the need for new taxes.

“Oil revenues are down and we can’t afford supersized PFDs, a lot of people think we can, and to do that, we would need to basically decimate our services,” she said. “It would destabilize the Alaska economy and it would push costs to the residents of my district.”

Many residents in House District 28 may have different concerns than others across Alaska.

The district is the wealthiest in Alaska, encompassing Hillside, Turnagain Arm and Girdwood. The median annual household income is over $150,000, which is almost double the statewide average.

Kaufman notably isn’t promising to support a full statutory dividend and believes his residents are more worried about the burden of potential new revenues. “Many of them are greatly concerned about having to pay tax so a dividend can be issued,” he said.

Fletcher also supports a reduced PFD in the short term and is the one candidate in the race who supports Ballot Measure 1.

With the state facing fiscal turmoil, Kaufman talks about examining the operating budget but stops short of saying how much should be cut.

“How do we get to a sustainable point, and we need to do that quickly, but hopefully doing it with the least damage, because people do come to depend on the status quo,” Kaufman said.

LaFrance believes there are efficiencies to be made but is skeptical that big reductions are possible. “Not a whole lot, no more big, deep cuts,” she said.

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