Two Alaska lawmakers made the Washington Post Politics “40 Under 40” list this week. The index, which “focuses on people who have made names for themselves in politics outside of Washington, D.C.” included State Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt. Despite their professional rolls of opposing each other atmost all times, the odd pairing now benefits from the rarest of all common traits: Alaska politicians featured in national headlines that don’t include words like “embarassment” or “endicted.”
And for that, we thank them.
Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka) just wrapped up his first legislative session, after defeating longtime incumbent Republican Bill Thomas, first elected in 2005. Thomas served as the House Finance Chair, an all-important position that generally comes with a lot of voter support. The Washington Post cited his tireless campaigning as part of the reasoning behind the nod, noting that the win came “in a district that requires a lot of island-hopping… [and] Tomkins would often sleep on someone’s couch while awaiting a trip to the next round of glad-handing.”
The race was a nail-biter, ending in a recount that found Kreiss-Tomkins the victor by the slimmest of margins; just a 32 vote difference.
The upset didn’t grant Kreiss-Tomkins any special favors. Despite picking up the seat for the Democrats, the GOP enjoyed major gains in both houses, saddling Kreiss-Tomkins with freshman status in a minority party without the votes to do much. The representative of House District 34 saw movement on only two of his 12 sponsored bills. But the epic struggle behind HB 216 likely pushed him over the edge to make the list.
HB 216 sought to make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages, alongside English. While that recognition does not necessitate that state and local governments print documents in all of these languages, many supporters saw the bill’s passage as an important symbolic gesture.
“This bill is restorative justice, a step in the right direction,” Tlingit speaker X’unei Lance Twitchell, a professor of Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, told Anchorage Daily News’ Richard Mauer.
Despite how popular the bill was, its fate was anything but secure. The push to bring it to a full Senate vote (the final step before the governor’s office) included a sit-in, with dozens of supporters lining the halls of the Capitol, outside the office of Rules Committee Chair Sen. Lesil McGuire (R-Anchorage). The vote itself didn’t happen until after 3:00 a.m. on April 20.
“After the bill passed, supporters gathered outside Senate chambers to embrace each other and shed tears of joy,” wrote Casey Kelly, for KTOO, recapturing the dramatic events as they unfolded.
Alaska would be just the second state, after Hawaii, to officially recognize indigenous languages. The bill is now on his desk, awaiting his signature.
Kreiss-Tomkins will no doubt have an uphill battle in his efforts to retain his seat this November. But through his unlikely accomplishment in HB216, and other popular efforts to combat hazing, label genetically modified food, and reduce the burden of student loan debt, the freshman representative from Sitka has definitely made a case for himself. Tomkins told me he’s eager to get back to work, putting an emphasis on innovation in public education, revitalizing Native languages, rural economic development, and responsible resource development.
Jokingly, he added: “It shows you where the WaPo’s standards are if they’re including yahoos like me!”
From underdog to top dog, House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt (R-Anchorage) walked into office with some swagger. Pruitt was unencumbered by electoral challenges. In 2010, he ran for the seat left vacant when former Rep. Harry Crawford (D-Anchorage) decided to run for Congress. He fended off Democratic challenger Barbara Norton by a healthy 11-point margin. After redistricting merged Pruitt’s district with East Anchorage representative Pete Petersen, that margin dissipated, but Pruitt still overcame the challenge, 51-48.
Two years into the job, Pruitt was elevated to House Majority Leader, second only to Speaker of the House Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski). Counter to Chenault’s bombastic style of overpowering personality and politics, Pruitt has embraced a playbook more akin to Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.”
Lucky for Pruitt, the GOP-dominated state house — which enjoys a three-to-one advantage over Democrats — requires no lumber. The Majority Leader instead wields a big majority. Over the 28th legislature, Pruitt has used that support to pass six out of the nine bills he’s sponsored. Notable among them are new municipal tobacco tax regulations, permission for the University of Alaska to create an unmanned aircraft training program, and a provision that grants immunity to people seeking medical assistance for a person experiencing a drug overdose (a really good bill).
“I’m truly honored to be named among so many great leaders throughout the country,” Pruitt told me yesterday, via email. “My priorities have and will continue to be jobs for Alaskans, safe neighborhoods, great schools and to keep moving Alaska forward into a bright future.”
During the 28th Legislature, Pruitt proved himself to be very effective at keeping his caucus in line, voting the way he and Speaker Chenault wished members to. He’d be a solid pick for any legislative fantasy team. Despite turning down a run for lieutenant governor this year, that’s likely not a hat-tip toward lack of ambition. Pruitt has been rumored to be on the shortlist of U.S. Representative Don Young’s potential successors.
As the Washington Post list hints, “Alaska Republicans expect him to be on the statewide ballot soon enough.”