Fiercely conservative Chugiak-Eagle River sends all-female delegation to Juneau

Friday, January 4, 2019 - 16:52
  • From left, Rep.-appointee Sharon Jackson (District 13), Rep. Cathy Tilton (District 12), Sen. Shelley Hughes (District F), Sen.-elect Lora Reinbold (District G) and Rep.-elect Kelly Merrick (District 14) attend a town hall meeting in Eagle River, Alaska on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2018. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • Rep.-appointee Sharon Jackson (R-Eagle River/Ft. Rich), left, and Rep. Cathy Tilton (R-Chugiak/Butte), listen during a town hall meeting held at the Eagle River Town Center building in Eagle River, Alaska on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2018. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan attends a town hall meeting in Eagle River, Alaska on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2018. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

A record number of women in Congress has drawn national headlines in recent days, but in Chugiak-Eagle River another historic delegation is about to take office.

When the Legislature convenes Jan. 15, the staunchly conservative district north of Anchorage will be represented by its first all-female delegation, with three female Republican State House representatives and a pair of GOP women in the State Senate.

“The news media and the opposition party sometimes likes to say Republicans don’t like women,” said Alaska Republican Party committeeman Peter Goldberg during a town hall meeting Jan. 3 in downtown Eagle River. “But I came to see five dedicated, energetic, hard-working, conservative Republican women all at the same spot.”

The group includes Sen.-elect Lora Reinbold, Sen. Shelley Hughes, Rep.-appointee Sharon Jackson, Rep. Cathy Tilton and Rep.-elect Kelly Merrick. Together they represent nearly a quarter of the 23 women in the 60-member Alaska Legislature, which includes 20 senators and 40 representatives. They’re also bringing some diversity to the majority white body; when she takes office, Jackson — who was appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to fill a seat originally won by Nancy Dahlstrom — will be the lone African-American in the State House and one of three black Alaskans in the Legislature.

In 2016, Donald Trump received approximately 63 percent of the vote in Chugiak-Eagle River, and in November Republican Dunleavy received between 60 and 70 percent of the vote at area precincts in his race against Democrat Mark Begich.

Longtime legislative observer Bill Stoltze, who served in the State House and Senate and before that worked as a legislative aide, said it’s the first time Chugiak-Eagle River has sent only women to Juneau. And that’s fine by him.

“It’s based on merit and performance, not on a quota system and that’s the way to get there,” he said.

Tilton, Merrick, Dahlstrom and Reinbold won their races by wide margins over Democratic and nonpartisan challengers in November, while Hughes isn’t up for re-election until 2020. Merrick and Jackson are first-time legislators.

Goldberg wasn’t the only person to applaud the local delegation’s all-female cast. Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce executive director Debbie Rinckey also noticed the delegation’s unique makeup during Thursday’s town hall.

“Look at this beautiful slate of women,” Rinckey said. “I love it.”

For their part, the women have shied away from focusing on their gender, instead sticking to their campaign messages — which were remarkably similar and in keeping with the area’s staunchly conservative bent. All have said they’ll push for tougher crime laws, believe resource development is key to solving the state’s fiscal crisis and support a return to the “full” funding formula for paying Permanent Fund dividends.

Thursday’s meeting was simply a chance for the women to listen said Reinbold, who is moving from the House to the Senate this year.

“This is your meeting, this is your town hall,” she said as the meeting began.

By far the top issue mentioned by constituents was crime. Many in Chugiak-Eagle River believe lax state crime laws are contributing to increases in things like car thefts and violent crime, and several people said they hope the legislators will work to repeal the controversial SB 91 crime bill.

“I think that’s gotta be your top priority,” said Eagle River’s Jesse James.

Other people who spoke at the two-hour meeting said they think balancing the budget should be a priority, as should reducing health care costs and decreasing the number of people receiving services such as Medicaid and other welfare programs. Repairing damage from the recent earthquake, bulking up state infrastructure funding and improving education outcomes were also listed as constituent priorities.

The meeting included a pop-in visit from U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who said he was simply there to listen as well.

“Thanks for letting us crash your event,” Sen. Sullivan quipped.

Sullivan said he will be working in Washington D.C. to urge the Trump administration to declare a national disaster, which would free up millions in federal funds for those impacted by the Nov. 30 quake, which caused widespread damage in Chugiak-Eagle River.

The meeting concluded with all five local legislators promising to have an open-door policy while in Juneau and encouraging constituents to call, email or follow them on social media.

Jackson said she’s looking forward to the opportunity to bring Chugiak-Eagle River’s message to the state capital.

“It is an honor to support your voices in Juneau,” she said.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected]

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