How to Turn a Red State Purple (Democrats Not Required)
On May 23, 2012, after finishing final exams at the end of his junior year at Yale, a 23-year-old named Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins got two phone calls from people back home in Alaska. The first came from an erstwhile losing candidate for state Legislature; the second, from a longtime high school debate coach who remembered Kreiss-Tomkins as a standout from a rival school’s team. Neither one knew the other was calling, but both had the same idea: Kreiss-Tomkins should drop out of college.
Specifically, he should drop out of college, move home to Sitka and become a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives. They told him he had 10 days to decide.
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Kreiss-Tomkins was dubious. There were plenty of reasons to say no. First, he had already planned out the year ahead: A relaxing summer in Sitka, with its 17 hours of sunlight, before starting the White House internship he’d lined up in the fall, then returning to Yale in the spring to finish his political science degree. Even if he could convince himself that giving all that up would be worth it, the race would be a steep uphill climb. Of the 40 members of Alaska’s Statehouse, only 16 were Democrats, several of whom caucused with the Republicans. Kreiss-Tomkins would have to campaign across a district made up of hundreds (if not thousands) of islands, strewn over an area the size of Connecticut. The incumbent Republican, Bill Thomas, chaired the House’s powerful Finance Committee and was widely seen as unbeatable, having eviscerated every opponent since his first election in 2004. In sum, it all added up to a sobering explanation for the phone calls: Alaska’s Democrats couldn’t find anyone else who would run, and turned their lonely eyes to a 23-year-old college student 2,900 miles away.
But why him?
By the time I had met Kreiss-Tomkins earlier that semester in a course I taught at Yale, he was already a campus semilegend, known for his serious hobbies (mountain climbing and ultramarathons) and singular appearance: bald, with a fringe of snowy blond hair and bright blue eyes—at once prematurely aged and precociously youthful, old man meets newborn.
What the folks back home knew—and his college friends didn’t—is that as a teenager, Kreiss-Tomkins had been, in his words, “autodidactically ferocious” about politics. While in high school, he’d memorized all 50 state attorneys general, all 100 U.S. senators, and a couple hundred members of the House of Representatives. At 14, his organizing prowess on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign earned coverage from NPR, The Washington Post and The New York Times Magazine. From his home on a “remote Alaskan island,” the Times Magazine reported a month before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, “Kreiss-Tomkins has become especially adept at finding pen pals and online friends, and he now uses that skill on behalf of the Dean campaign, recruiting supporters through the Internet and then sending lists of e-mail addresses to the campaign.”
In college, feeling a bit of “been there, done that” syndrome, as he put it, he had dropped political organizing. But the phone calls from home, urging him to run for office stirred something inside. “I see politics in VORP-like terms,” he explains, using the baseball stat-nerd acronym for “value over replacement player.” Would he be better than a hypothetical average candidate recruited to run for the seat? The deadline approached. Finally, he made up his mind. On June 1, 2012, on his way to the Newark airport to fly home for the summer, he took a detour to the FedEx/Kinko’s in Times Square. “It was the last fax I ever sent,” he remembers. He got his paperwork in just under the wire, “at 8 o’clock Eastern time”—4 p.m. Alaska time. He was in.
Over the next five months, Kreiss-Tomkins campaigned doggedly. He went door to door, by foot, ferry and bush plane. He visited Alaska Native villages, arriving with only a backpack containing a change of clothes, a tube of Ritz crackers, some peanut butter and a stash of business cards.
Thomas, his opponent, hung back, slow to awake to the seriousness of the challenge. Meanwhile, Kreiss-Tomkins, sounding a populist note, hammered him on a vote Thomas had taken to cut taxes for the oil industry. “I framed my candidacy primarily as a referendum on that vote,” Kreiss-Tomkins says, “because I thought his vote on such an important issue directly conflicted with the public interest.”
The election went down to the wire, then past it as absentee ballots arrived from Alaskans around the world—“from a military person in Bahrain, from somebody living abroad in Cambodia”—the closest contest of the season in Alaska and possibly the whole country. State Democrats watched with gnawed-down fingernails and high bar tabs. If Kreiss-Tomkins lost, the Alaska House Democrats would have just nine members, below the one-fourth of the assembly that is required to be considered an official caucus—at which point, according to the Legislature’s rules, they could be excluded from committees and even denied funds for hiring staff. “At one point, my race was dead-even tied,” says Kreiss-Tomkins. “The tabulation would change by the day. Up by two, down by seven. Then there was a recount.”
On December 3, 2012, Kreiss-Tomkins was declared the victor by 32 votes. And although he had no way to know it at the time, it was the beginning of something very unexpected.
In the five years since Kreiss-Tomkins’s upset victory, a most unusual thing has happened: Alaska—which elected Sarah Palin governor and has not supported a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson—has turned from red to a bluish hue of purple. Throughout the state, unknown progressives, like the kind Kreiss-Tomkins once was, have been winning. Before the elections of 2012, conservatives controlled all the major seats of power in Alaska: the governorship, both houses of the Legislature, and the mayoralty and city assembly of Anchorage, where 40 percent of the state’s 740,000 residents live; now, progressives and moderates control all of those offices but the state Senate, which has been gerrymandered beyond their control. More than half of the 40-member Alaska House of Representatives has been newly elected since 2012, most of them Democrats or independents, and they have remade the Democratic-independent caucus into a 22-18 majority.
Not all of these newcomer state legislators are typical progressives—“the NPR-listening liberals hunt, fish or camp here,” says Joelle Hall, political director of the Alaska AFL-CIO—but in defeating more conservative candidates, they accomplished something that didn’t happen anywhere else in November 2016: In a state that went for Trump by 15 points, they flipped a red legislative chamber to blue.
Alaska remains a gun-loving and tax-averse state, defined by its military bases and love of hunting. It has two Republican senators and a Republican congressman. But the state is changing. In the past four years, Alaska has raised its minimum wage, legalized recreational marijuana and passed the strongest universal voter registration bill in the country. Governor Bill Walker—an ex-Republican who has the support of organized labor and most liberals—and the House majority coalition are publicly advocating the introduction of a statewide income tax, a move long thought impossible in Alaska’s notoriously libertarian political climate.
To be sure, this tectonic political shift would have been impossible without traditional Democratic players, like unions. But what’s been less noticed, even in Alaska, is the role played by millennials who, rather than spending years working their way up on the team, instead reinvented the playbook. Three men in particular—Kreiss-Tomkins, Forrest Dunbar and John-Henry Heckendorn—have pointed the way to reviving progressivism in the state by recruiting new, outsider candidates, teaching them how to win, and connecting them with fellow travelers. In bypassing traditional channels—which in Alaska, as everywhere else, tend to elevate predictable, uninspiring pols who have paid their dues—they’ve propelled a wave of untested candidates with little experience and even less party identity, but who believe in the economic populist agenda shared by a coalition of labor, environmentalists and the state’s large, politically engaged Alaska Native population.
Their emerging coalition has been a boon for the Democratic Party, of course, but what’s remarkable is how little of this transformation has depended on the party. To the extent that the Democratic Party has helped in its own revival—and in transforming Alaska from deep red to a blue-ish purple—it was in part by getting out of the way. As progressives across the country try to pry Republicans out of power, they have important lessons to learn from a state where they are wrongly thought to have no power at all.
There’s a refrain you’ll hear as you report about Alaska politics, especially if you’re an outsider: “You have to meet Forrest.” Last May, after I’d spend a few days in Juneau, I’d heard this advice often enough that I hopped a plane to Anchorage to meet the mythical Forrest Dunbar.
Dunbar, 33, grew up in the rural towns of Eagle and Cordova, then attended American University, Harvard’s Kennedy School and Yale Law. He spent a summer working for Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public school system. He’s a captain in the Alaska Army National Guard—hence his sidewalls haircut—which checks an important box in this heavily pro-military state. In 2014, he gamely ran for Congress against Don Young, Alaska’s sole U.S. representative since 1973. He lost with 41 percent of the vote, but he lost well, as they say: He impressed people, made a name for himself. After losing, he lowered his electoral ambitions, focusing on Anchorage politics. Last November, Dunbar won a seat on the Anchorage Assembly, which in the past five years has bounced out almost every hard-line conservative: liberals and moderates now control nine of the 11 seats, and two members of their caucus are openly gay men. In that capacity, he now works closely with Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, a Harvard-educated Democrat elected in 2015.
But for all Dunbar’s success in Anchorage, the main reason people wanted me to meet him was that he had played an important, behind-the-scenes role in flipping the Alaska House. Whenever I asked about the progressives’ winning streak, how they went from a 10-seat superminority in 2012 to a majority today, people pointed me to three men: Kreiss-Tomkins, Dunbar and a political consultant named John-Henry Heckendorn. According to the story I kept hearing, these three young progressives—at 33, Dunbar is five years older than the others—had found candidates who could win swing districts, coaxed them to run, and taught them how to win. All while persuading labor and Democratic Party elders to support their untested candidates, rather than more experienced pols who had paid their dues.
When I bluntly asked Dunbar if there was any truth to the narrative, he chuckled and demurred. “What did JKT tell you?” he asked after a very long pause (“JKT” is what everyone in Alaska politics calls Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins). I said that I had not yet asked JKT about candidate recruitment.
Dunbar chuckled again, a bit nervously.
“What did John-Henry tell you?” he asked.
John-Henry, I said, would not talk on the record.
Dunbar considered this. “I will say that there are a number of young progressives doing this work in Alaska,” Dunbar said, “and we have been fortunate that the old-guard Democrats, and old-guard labor folks, have been quite supportive.”
This trio of like-minded, freakishly wonkish politicos came together randomly, although it was only a matter of time (everyone in Alaska meets eventually). Dunbar first met Kreiss-Tomkins in 2010, in New Haven, Connecticut, when they were both at Yale. “I saw a bald kid in cold weather biking down York Street in dolphin shorts,” recalls Dunbar, referring to the short-shorts preferred by runners, “and I was like, ‘Who the hell is that?’” A little bit later—Dunbar thinks it was 2013—he met Heckendorn, who came to Alaska in 2012 to work on a House campaign after graduating from Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Washington.
The three of them bonded over a shared vision of Alaska’s future: conservationist with a heightened voice for Alaska Natives and an economy sustained, but not dominated, by oil interests. In this vision, the state budget—which has, for years, been totally reliant on oil prices—would have more revenue sources, including an income tax, which would shelter public services from the fickleness of the market. And a diversified, higher-tech economy would be anchored by Anchorage, which like many American cities has experienced a renaissance, with the public art, bicycle lanes and well-used parks that one expects in a Seattle or Portland.
Soon after Kreiss-Tomkins’ upset election in 2012, he met Heckendorn, who convinced him and Dunbar that other conservative lawmakers were vulnerable. They agreed that the key to winning in those districts was candidate recruitment—and that the key to candidate recruitment was assuring potential candidates who lacked political experience that they’d have the help they needed to win.
As Heckendorn understood, state parties are skeletal operations, except in the few months before an election; they endorse, and lend help where they can, often by steering candidates toward trusted consultants, who are happy for the work. But they are actually poorly set up to find novice candidates and help them build momentum and win. So Heckendorn turned the process on its head. After working first under his own name, and beginning in January 2015 with the Ship Creek Group, his model was to act as a central repository of talent—a one-stop shop offering neophyte candidates help with everything from graphic design to fundraising, from advice on their door-knocking speeches to an experienced campaign treasurer.
Candidate recruitment always rests on a kind of faith: that the best people are out there, if only you look hard enough. Heckendorn, Dunbar and Kreiss-Tomkins spent hundreds of hours looking for candidates in vulnerable districts, making phone calls to local players, seeing who had good word of mouth. They didn’t ask who would run—a question that largely yields candidates who have run, and lost, before—but who should. When they reached potential candidates, they often steered them to Ship Creek—as a startup, it needed clients, and so candidate recruitment, in the words of the AFL-CIO’s Hall, “was also job creation.” And by making campaigning seem if not easy, then at least possible, and by promising good advice and support, they made it difficult for would-be clients to say no.
Several years ago, Heckendorn approached Hall to see if labor might be a willing partner in a new, expansive vision of candidate recruitment. Alaska has the third-highest union membership in the country, after Hawaii and New York, so labor-endorsed candidates get cash and manpower that can make the difference in close races. Immediately, Hall was game. “The Democratic Party does what it always does,” she said. “They promote from within—people working hard, doing community councils, a meritocracy. But that is harder and harder to do and win.” And she was impressed by another idea he had: running independents.
In a state where 26 percent of voters are registered Republicans and only 15 percent are Democrats, there were districts where a progressive could win, but not if he had a “D” next to his name. Hall got organized labor to work with Ship Creek. “We chose districts where people could run as an independent,” Hall says. “And then we were able to keep the Democrat out of the race. Because in a three-way race, the Republican wins.”
As Hall notes, it’s not only about avoiding the “D” in name, but in style. The state’s pro-choice, pro-gun, pro-oil ways call for candidates who’d map oddly onto political landscapes elsewhere, and its very strict campaign finance laws limit the power of incumbency. You have to be comfortable with guns, hunting and fishing—that goes without saying. It also helps not to be a carpetbagger: you don’t have to be a fourth-generation Alaskan born in a log cabin, but at the very least you have to have proven your small-town, backwoods, Wild West bona fides.
Which is how the Statehouse’s 22-member majority coalition came to include the manager of a dog-sled race, a bar owner and former jazz drummer, and a beloved high-school teacher who’d written college recommendations for probably hundreds of his potential constituents: People would rather vote for their bud than for that annoying guy in a suit who’s run twice and lost.
Zach Fansler is a part-time lawyer, full-time math teacher and seasonal manager of the Kuskokwim 300 dog-sled race in Bethel, a far-western town across the sea from Russia. After graduating from college in 2001, Fansler moved to Alaska with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps; he has the good-guy air of the frat bro you trust to protect you from other frat bros.
On May 31, 2016, Fansler got a phone call from an Anchorage lawyer he’d never met—one Forrest Dunbar. “I just presumed he was calling because he wanted me to, like, show him around,” says Fansler, 38. On the phone, Dunbar eventually mentioned he was looking for somebody to oppose Fansler’s state rep, a Democrat-in-name-only who caucused with Republicans. The filing deadline was the next day.
“And I’m not always the smartest guy,” says Fansler. “I’m thinking he wants me to give him some names, you know what I mean? Eventually he’s like, ‘No, I’m actually calling to gauge your interest in running.’” The filing deadline was the next day.