Effort to Recall Alaska Governor Picks Up Steam

Volunteers gather voter signatures in Anchorage, Alaska on Aug. 1, 2019 in an effort to oust Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (Photo courtesy of Anna Bondarenko)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) – Alaskans began holding signature gathering events on Thursday in more than 20 locations from Juneau to Nome and places in-between to kick off a formal effort to recall Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Dunleavy was elected last November in a tumultuous election that saw the incumbent independent Bill Walker drop out after Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott admitted to making sexually inappropriate comments to a young Alaska native woman at a public event.

An earlier entry on the ticket of former U.S. Senator Mark Begich for the Democrats had already threatened to split votes that would set the election in favor of Dunleavy. By the time Walker withdrew, mail-in ballots were already coming back in and the official November election ballots had already been printed with his name on them.

Not even Walker’s last minute endorsement of Begich was enough to overcome Dunleavy’s popular campaign promise to restore a full Permanent Fund Dividend in a traditionally red state. The dividend, or PFD, is  given to Alaskans from oil and gas revenue and Dunleavy wants to hand out $3,000 this year to each of Alaska’s 644,000 residents rather than the $1,600 per capita decreed by his predecessor and favored by the current state Legislature.

The fight over the dividend set up the budget battle that saw Dunleavy strike more than $400 million from the capital budget in June through line-item vetoes, including essential services to education, arts, senior citizens and the court system, sending state residents and the Legislature into turmoil. Lawmakers were unable to pull together the three-quarters majority needed to override the vetoes when the governor made an unprecedented call for the Legislature to meet in special session outside the state capital. This ended with a split of 22 legislators meeting in Wasilla and 38 in Juneau.

Since then, state representatives have passed legislation restoring many of the cuts, including $110 million of the $130 million vetoed for the state university system, however, Dunleavy still has the power to cut spending he does not like. The recall effort is one way residents are attempting to stop the governor from continuing to cut vital programs.

“On August 1st, 2019 we will start the process of saving our Great State,” volunteer spokesperson for Alaskans to Recall Dunleavy, Meda DeWitt, wrote in a press statement announcing the locations and times of events.

The group formally began public discussions on a recall at the Writer’s Block bookstore in Anchorage on July 15. Since that time, the effort has grown to include prominent figures in the state Republican Party and business leaders who had originally voted for Dunleavy.

“The fuel for my fire are the local people who are crying out to help push this forward,” Dewitt said. “They want to see Dunleavy taken out of office.”

One of the three major requirements to bring a recall before voters in the April 2020 election is designation of three committee sponsors. They include: Joseph Usibelli, chairman of Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc., Arliss Sturgulewski, former Republican state senator from Anchorage, and Vic Fischer, the last surviving delegate to help create the Alaska Constitution. Scott Kendall, former chief of staff to Gov. Walker is providing legal counsel to the recall campaign.

“Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s sudden, severe, and sometimes illegal budget cuts have caused tremendous harm to Alaska and Alaskans,” Usibelli and his wife Peggy Shumaker, a prominent writer and artist, wrote in an opinion piece published on Tuesday in Alaska newspapers.

“His brief time as governor has brought us an atmosphere of fear and distress, as people worry about whether they will be able to care for special-needs children or whether they will lose their jobs, their homes, and their ability to live in Alaska,” they wrote. “We cannot allow a governor who doesn’t understand the concept of separation of powers to remain in power. He cannot be allowed to attack the judiciary because courts make decisions he doesn’t like. He cannot be allowed to keep the Legislature from upholding its constitutional responsibilities to fund programs that provide for the health, education and well-being of Alaska’s people.”

The other two requirements organizers need is to establish grounds for recall and collect a certain percentage of voter signatures. It is a multi-step process that has only been attempted one other time in state history, according to the state Division of Elections. A 1992 effort to recall then-Gov. Walter Hickel and Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill failed in Fairbanks Superior Court based on insufficient grounds presented.

A memo accompanying the press advisory from the recall group says, “It is our collective opinion that the allegations in this application accurately state at least one—and likely multiple—legally sufficient grounds to certify a recall of the governor.”

The seven-page document lays out an analysis of grounds for recall, including neglect of duties, incompetence and lack of fitness to be governor. They claim Dunleavy violated Alaska law by refusing to appoint a judge to the Palmer Superior Court within 45 days of receiving nominations; violated separation-of-powers by improperly using line-item vetoes to attack the court system after an abortion ruling he didn’t like and preventing the Legislature from upholding its constitutional health, education and welfare responsibilities.

The recall campaign will need to obtain signatures of 28,501 of the total number of people who voted in the 2018 general election for the application to be certified by the Division of Elections. This would then lead to a second signature gathering phase requiring 71,252 signatures.

“I don’t think that my actions in following the constitution when it comes to a veto process, and trying to put together a budget that’s going to be sustainable are going to end up being grounds for a recall,” Dunleavy told reporters at a mid-July press conference regarding budget matters.

“But people have a right to voice their opinions; people have the right to try and access various constitutional avenues to address their concerns. So, this is all part of politics. This is all part of being an elected official,” he said.

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