Recall Dunleavy campaign gathers signatures in Nome
Recall Dunleavy, an initiative to remove Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy from office, held a signature-gathering event in Nome on Thursday, August 1. The nonpartisan campaign officially launched last week and within the first 24 hours gathered over 10,000 signatures across about 20 communities statewide.
Scott Kent and Jessica Farley volunteered to organize the Nome event, collecting signatures from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Thursday in Old St. Joe’s. The group accumulated additional signatures on Friday, ending the two-day effort with a total of 320 names. According to Farley, this equates to one signature every two minutes. To put the number in perspective, 643 Nomeites cast ballots in the 2018 municipal election.
Kent said he believes it is important to give people in Nome an opportunity to participate in the Recall Dunleavy campaign because the overall attitude toward the governor here and in other parts of rural Alaska is extremely negative. People around the state want to be part of the recall process and even through Nome doesn’t have the numbers that larger cities do “we’re important, we matter,” said Kent. This is precisely what Kent believes Dunleavy fails to do: recognize and respect rural Alaska. “He’s not even trying to govern rural Alaska…we’re expendable [to him].”
People in Nome were really eager to sign the petition, said Kent, despite the short notice of the event. Given the fact that the region is deeply impacted by the budget cuts, this is perhaps not surprising. What is more interesting, however, was the group’s demographics. Kent said there was an extremely diverse group of signers, including Democrats, Independents, Republicans and a lot of non-partisan voters. There were even some individuals who agreed with some of Dunleavy’s policies, but not necessarily his process. As Kent put it, “it lit a fire of civic engagement.” Something especially positive he noted was that there were a lot of new voters. Young Alaskans and others who didn’t vote in the last election showed up to support the cause. People who didn’t follow politics before “are now laser focused” on what is going on in Juneau.
Farley made it clear that the campaign is not only about Dunleavy’s budget vetoes or the Permanent Fund Dividend. She said she believes the governor does not understand the constitution and is otherwise unqualified for the position. For example, Dunleavy accidentally vetoed $18 million in Medicaid funding, but had told the Legislature he would not veto the funding. If left uncorrected, this mistake would have cost the state over $40 million in matching federal funds. Farley said she also knew of similar events held in Kotzebue, Unalakleet and Shishmaref. “This is the first small step in a long process” Farley. According to Kent, there could be another signing opportunity as soon as early next week.
“There’s so many, it’s hard to pick just one” Farley responded when asked what her chief concerns about the governor are. One of her biggest issues with Dunleavy is that she thinks he cannot be trusted. His words do not align with his actions, and these empty promises have “hit rural Alaska hard.” Farley is especially concerned by Dunleavy’s cuts to early childhood education, senior benefits and the Nome Youth Facility.
Farley is confident that Recall Dunleavy will result in the governor leaving office one way or another. “I have no doubt that we will be successful…[this campaign] has gained so much steam around the state,” she said. Farley thinks that Dunleavy may resign before the recall initiative ends. His track record includes leaving the Alaska Senate in 2018 to run for governor and quitting his job with the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. “He never finishes what he starts,” said Farley.
According to Meda DeWitt, who serves as chair and spokesperson for the Recall Dunleavy initiative, the campaign is already more than a third of the way to the 28,501 signatures needed for the application to be reviewed by the Division of Elections. “This is truly a product of Alaskans taking a stand for families, communities, and state,” DeWitt said.
This is the first time in nearly 30 years—since 1991— that a campaign was formally launched to recall an Alaska official. In 1991 there was a recall effort to recall the Lt. Governor Jack Coghill.
Recall Dunleavy started out as a private Facebook group formed in response to the vetoes. Members vented about the governor, but initially were not serious about an effort to recall Dunleavy. But after the Legislature failed to overturn the governor’s budget vetoes, the group’s administrators began form a recall initiative in earnest. Attempts to remove governors from office are very rare; one has never been successful in the state.
Per the Alaska Division of Elections, grounds for recall include: lack of fitness, incompetence, neglect of duties and corruption. According to their petition, Dunleavy fits the first three criteria. It explains that Dunleavy violated Alaska law when he refused to appoint a Palmer Superior Court judge within 45 days of receiving nominations, he violated both the law and the Constitution and misused state funds when he purchased electronic advertisements making statements about political opponents and supporters. The group believes Dunleavy violated the constitutionally mandated separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches when he used a line-item veto to withhold funding from the Alaska Court System due to a ruling he disagreed with. Finally, the governor acted incompetently when he mistakenly vetoed about $18 million more Medicaid funding than he told the Legislature he said he would. “A ‘mistake’ of this magnitude and impact would certainly imply a ‘lack of ability to perform the official’s required duties,’” reads a memo detailing the grounds for recall.
A letter written by Recall campaign co-chair Joe Usibelli Sr. and his wife Peggy Shumaker published on the Recall Dunleavy website details the “atmosphere of fear and distress” during Dunleavy’s tenure as governor. “People from all regions of Alaska have had enough. Urban and rural leaders, Republicans, Democrats, and non-partisans, want the governor gone” reads the letter.
Recall Dunleavy is chaired by DeWitt as well as Vic Fischer, a former Democratic state senator, and delegate to the 1955 Alaska Constitutional Convention, Arliss Sturgulewski, a former Republican senator, and Usibelli, chair of the board of Usibelli Coal Mine.
Gathering signatures is an initial step in the recall process. Groups must collect a minimum of 28,501 signatures from registered Alaska voters on a recall application (this number equals 10 percent of the number of individuals who voted in the last state election). If the application is certified by the director of the Division of Elections, there is a second signature-gathering process for an official petition. The bar for the petition is higher—organizers need 71,252 signatures, equal to 25 percent of the number of voters in the last election. If this quota is met, the DOE director will again review the petition. If everything is in order, the director will file a ballot and announce a special election within 60 to 90 days. Should the vote be successful, Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer will finish out Dunleavy’s term. Department of Education Commissioner Michael Johnson would take Meyer’s position.
The ramping up of the recall campaign on Thursday added to an eventful week for Dunleavy and his administration. On August 2 the governor announced that he had areas of skin on his forehead removed. Biopsies confirmed a mild form of skin cancer, but, according to the statement, the governor’s dermatologist believes the treatment has addressed the issue.
In addition to Dunleavy’s personal health issues, there were staff changes at the top of his administration. Tuckerman Babcock, who until July 31 served as Dunleavy’s chief of staff, is now Senior Policy Advisor for Strategic Affairs. Ben Stevens, a former state senator, replaces Babcock. In the press release announcing the change, Babcock stated that he requested the new position. The role of Senior Policy Advisor for Strategic Affairs, he said, “allows me to concentrate on the areas I can best serve the Governor’s agenda.”
The day before this decision was announced, a U.S. District Court judge denied the state’s request that Dunleavy and Babcock be granted immunity for two lawsuits filed against them by the Alaska branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawsuits, which allege that the administration illegally fired a former Alaska assistant attorney general as well as two doctors from the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, will move forward.