Must Alaska Legislators Surrender to the Juneau Swamp Culture? | Rep. David Eastman

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)

How is it that blatantly anti-democratic practices, such as legislators selling votes in exchange for perks, continue to occur in Alaska in the year 2020?

Practices like these continue, year after year, because a majority of Alaska legislators have adopted a “Go along to get along” approach in Juneau. In other words, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. As a state, our legislators have been “joining ‘em” for longer than any other state. No other state legislature continues to tolerate the brazen vote-selling that we observe here in Alaska. Not even Illinois or New Jersey.

Why do we? What is it about Alaska politics that leads us to be so out of step with 49 other states? Some blame the fact that the legislature continues to meet in Juneau, which less than 5% of Alaskans can actually drive to. The location of the capital is certainly a factor, but it is not the only one.

How is it that Republican legislators get away with continually voting to punish fellow Republican legislators from the Mat-Su and Eagle River, simply for voting the way their constituents have asked them to, or for raising issues the Juneau Swamp would prefer not to talk about? In what other state would that ever be tolerated by Republican voters?

Awhile back, Alaskans were sold the lie “What happens in Juneau, stays in Juneau.” It sounded nice—but it wasn’t actually true.

When Lisa Murkowski came to Wasilla and told us that Justice Kavanaugh was too politically biased to serve on the Supreme Court, did you wonder where she first learned to think and talk like that?

I hate to admit it, but she was a state legislator representing Eagle River when her father appointed her to the U.S. Senate. She spent four years in Juneau, before she ever served in DC.

What happens in Juneau, doesn’t stay in Juneau.

Unfortunately, Alaskans have grown accustomed to leaving legislators largely to their own devices when they are in Juneau. We are now reaping the consequences of that failed approach. We see its fruits in the form of Binding Caucuses, secret votes, SB91, PFD money diverted to special interests, legislators flouting the law to convene an illegal special session in Juneau…and that’s just the start.

When legislators complain that the law limiting sessions of the legislature to 90 days is too restrictive and then simply ignore it, Alaskans tolerate that misbehavior. In other words, we buy the excuses. We shouldn’t.

Legislators in Texas average 70 days a year in session, plus an occasional special session. I’m sure some of their legislators would prefer longer sessions. But—in Texas—people don’t put up with that. A law is a law. Legislators, of all people, are expected to follow those.

But, here in Alaska, legislators tell us that 90 days is not nearly enough. Some of them may even believe it. They tell us that things in Juneau simply wouldn’t work if they only spent 90 days in session. While we may not fully believe that, as Alaskans, we tolerate it. We shouldn’t.

The more misbehavior you tolerate in Juneau, the more of it you tend to get. And the longer you tolerate a thing, the harder it’s going to be when you start trying to fix it.

Today, the Swamp publicly defends the practice of legislators selling their votes in advance to the caucus. We should not be surprised. Binding legislators to vote the way that those in Juneau tell them to, as opposed to listening to those back home, is how Juneau maintains control over state policy.

If you listen to those in the Swamp, the practice of legislators selling their votes ahead of time is not just a necessary evil, but critical to the “efficient” running of the legislature.

The Binding Caucus also plays a crucial part in the process of pitching to new legislators the idea that they aren’t actually responsible for the way they vote in the legislature. When a particularly obnoxious decision comes out of Juneau—like failing to block Gov. Walker’s veto of the PFD—legislators shout “I was outnumbered, my vote wouldn’t have mattered” or, my personal favorite, “The caucus made me do it.” I’m gonna guess that wouldn’t go over too well in Texas. It shouldn’t here either.

So how does this end? This story is likely to end the same way “The Emperor’s New Clothes” ends. As the parade passes through town, a young spectator cries loudly enough for all to hear: “He’s got no clothes on!” Up until that moment, those in the crowd had been too embarrassed to point out what many had already suspected—the emperor, had been duped. The emperor’s fabled new clothes weren’t invisible—they were imaginary.

Awhile back, a group of legislators sold their peers on the idea that selling votes and threatening fellow legislators with punishment was somehow honorable, ethical and a good way to get things done. It turns out…they were full of it. Once everyday Alaskans are able to admit in public that we’ve been duped, this charade will finally end.

In the children’s story, to save face, the emperor completed the parade despite the laughter of his subjects. But the Juneau Swamp is not so polite today. One of the reasons Alaskans are even aware of the Binding Caucus this year is because it has lashed out so spectacularly at those of us who have spoken out against the practice.

Mat-Su legislators like Sen. Dunleavy, Sen. Shower, Sen. Hughes and myself have each been punished by our fellow Republican legislators, sometimes repeatedly. And what for? For siding with our constituents, and shining light on what goes on down in Juneau.

The truth is that Alaskans are being ripped off by the Juneau Swamp Culture, and have been for years. The PFD isn’t the first time the Swamp has ripped off Alaskans, it’s just one of the most visible.

These practices continue because of the culture that we have allowed to creep into the halls of our legislature, and because of “Go along to get along” politicians. The culture in the legislature today is two parts street gang and three parts middle school. That’s the environment into which we send new legislators.

If you elect a new legislator this year, that is what you will be sending them into.

It’s not a debating society. It’s not an accounting firm. And, when you get down to Juneau, you realize that it’s not actually characterized by Republican vs. Democrat.

The culture of the legislature today is that of a clique. True, there are more Republicans than Democrats in the legislature, but new legislators quickly realize that you can be a Democrat legislator and be in the clique, and you can be a Republican legislator and be excluded. Those who pledge loyalty are rewarded. Those who put loyalty to voters over loyalty to the clique, are punished.

As you evaluate the candidates running to represent you in the legislature, consider how each candidate is likely to perform in that kind of environment. Might they become so preoccupied with who gets to sit with the cool kids at lunch tomorrow that they forget to take into account how their votes and decisions actually impact real Alaskans? We already have more than enough legislators who fall into that category. It’s time for the Alaska Legislature to grow up. Forty-nine other state legislatures have figured it out. We can too.

Rep. David Eastman has served in the Alaska State House representing the Mat-Su since 2017; He ran on a platform of fighting for genuine conservative reform, fiscally and socially, and remains committed to that promise.