Democratic Frontier: Q&A with the State Party Chair
With the governorship, a US senate seat, our lone Congressional seat, and SB 21 repeal all on the statewide ballot, 2014 is a critical election year in Alaska. Given recent gerrymandering and the influx of outside political money, the state represents significant challenges for Democrats. The Mudflats spoke with Democratic Party Chair Mike Wenstrup about the state of the state, his party, and its future.
Alaska doesn’t seem to be a very hospitable place for Democrats these days, so what compelled you to want to run the state party?
Alaska values are Democratic values: Respect for personal privacy, government restraint, maximizing public benefits from resource development. There is always a battle to ensure these values prevail over well-financed special interests, we Democrats believe in these values and will fight to defend them. Like most Alaskans, I’ve been dismayed by the radical tea party hijacking of our state and federal governments and I became involved with the ADP in order help restore reasonable discourse back in Juneau and DC.
Alaskans vote very differently for their representation at the federal level than at the state level. To what do you attribute the fact that our delegation to DC is fairly moderate and independent minded, while Juneau has been trending steadily to the far right (culminating in SB 21 and blowing up the bipartisan Senate)?
Alaskans continue to support elected officials who put our state ahead of partisanship. The Governor’s success at gerrymandering the state senate doesn’t change that, though it certainly makes it more challenging to achieve state policies that are reflective of Alaska values. Thankfully our federal delegation cannot be gerrymandered.
In the past there has been some criticism of the state party as being too Anchorage-centric. Do you think that’s a fair take, and if so, how as a practical matter do you think having a new leader who hails from the interior can be useful?
It’s not a just party issue, Anchorage’s population makes up half of all Alaskans. However, that means that half of the population does not live in Anchorage. Alaskans living outside of Anchorage often feel overwhelmed by policies that appear to be Anchorage-centric. No one is to blame, it is simply math and reality. The Democratic Party, however, is most effective when we are united and focused on electing good, hardworking Alaskans, from across the entire state, to office. We work on a wide range of state issues from energy development in the Interior to protecting the democratic process in Anchorage to preserving our renewable resource industries in coastal Alaska.
Speaking of the interior, former senators Paskvan and Thomas have a lot of expertise in the critical areas of energy and education, respectively, and were highly regarded on this end. We were quite surprised when both of them lost. What happened there, and do you think either will make another run at elected office?
Over and over, you can see the process of gerrymandering result not just in more partisanship but also in the loss of experienced statesmen. In the same year that the Joes lost, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, in a non-gerrymandered Borough wide election, elected a progressive mayor and moderate-progressive majority in the Assembly. As SB 21 and the accelerated decline of oil production indicates, the loss of Paskvan and Thomas was a loss for all of Alaska, not just Fairbanks. Senators Paskvan and Thomas are committed community leaders and I expect them to stay active advocating for Alaskans for many years to come.
Do you see a generational challenge in recruiting young people into party activism? In a state where independents are the biggest slice of the electoral pie, and party elders can often seem like the usual suspects from the political establishment, what is the ADP doing to broaden its reach and appeal to a new generation of voters and activists?
As one of the youngest Party Chairs in the country, I’m no stranger to attending political events and being the youngest person in the room. Attracting the next generation of Alaskans is a top priority and our best recruiting tool is our policies and candidates. Poll after poll shows that the views of the majority of young people are in line with the policies advocated by the ADP. We’ve increased our presence in social media, mainstream media, and throughout the university system. We have a strong and vibrant Young Democrats organization working hard across the State on issues important to them and all Alaskans.
What are the priorities you’ve set for the organization? What are the biggest differences people should expect as a result of your leadership?
Our number one priority is to help Alaskans elect or re-elect common sense Alaskans who are willing to put the priorities of their constituents ahead of corporate donors, radical partisans or even party politics. The ADP is not a single issue party and will continue to promote common sense solutions to real issues affecting Alaskans. Partisan rancor in DC diminishes people’s faith in our process and our two parties. Alaskan Democratic leaders have always been willing to work across party lines to get results, but right now Alaskans are under attack from outside interests with billions to spend in hopes of getting radical politicians elected, ones beholden to their financiers, not the people of Alaska. I would like to return to an era when both Democratic and Republican elected officials put country ahead of party, and we can start by setting a positive example and fighting for Alaskan values that folks from all parties support.