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JKT: Representing district is ‘deeply personal’

State Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, 24, quickly puts his tie on before heading to a committee meeting on Feb. 14, 2013. The freshman Democrat from Sitka was elected by 32 votes. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

When he ran for the Alaska House last year, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins visited each community in his district, knocking on almost every door. The strategy paid off. The 24-year-old Democrat won a seat in the Legislature by just 32 votes.

And now that he’s been on the job six weeks, it’s becoming clear that Kreiss-Tomkins’ busy campaign schedule wasn’t a sprint, so much as the start of a marathon.

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The early morning hours in state Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins’ office, on the fourth floor of the Alaska Capitol, are actually pretty calm. Coffee is dripping into a pot near the door, and classical music plays softly from a speaker as staffers Nancy Barnes, Tully McLoughlin and Holly Smith pore over calendars and answer e-mails. The calm does not last long.

Kreiss-Tomkins arrives out of breath and wearing most of his suit — the jacket and tie are waiting for him in his office. There’s a strap around his right ankle to keep his pants free from the chain on the bicycle he rides to work every morning.

Kreiss-Tomkins represents Alaska’s 34th district — a collection of communities in Southeast that include Sitka, Haines, Angoon, Kake, Craig, Kalwock, Metlakatla and more.

Today, the 24-year-old freshman Democrat gets to the Capitol at 7:55 a.m. with two meetings already under his belt: one at 6 a.m., the other at 7:30. Next on the schedule is a committee meeting.

Kreiss-Tomkins puts on his tie and jacket, and dashes down the hall to the staircase. He says the frenetic pace of today is typical.

“Well, there’s not enough time in the building during the business day, so I’ve taken to scheduling 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. morning meetings,” Kreiss-Tomkins says as he walks down the Capitol’s main staircase.

He ducks into the State Affairs committee. Today, it’s a presentation on the health care system for state employees. The rest of the day includes a Fisheries committee meeting on derelict vessels, a minority caucus meeting, a flash mob protesting violence against women, a Transportation Committee meeting, and then a variety of visits with an official from BP, and local elected leaders from Anaktuvik Pass, Haines, Pelican and Sitka, all of whom are in the building today to lobby their lawmakers.

About eight hours later, after running down to the legislator’s lounge for his first food of the day, and then running back up to his office, holding some food he calls “breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he finally has time to sit down and talk.

KCAW: How is having the job different than running for the job?
Kreiss-Tomkins: If I closed my eyes when I was a candidate, I couldn’t picture that I’d be waking up at 5:45 to get down to the 6 a.m. meeting, to get to this, to get to that. Going to the lounge to scrounge some leftovers… none of that would have been in my mind. I never could have pictured that, unless I worked here as a staffer, which I never did.
KCAW: What’s the bigger challenge to the way you’re doing your job? Being a freshman, or being in the minority?
Kreiss-Tomkins: Freshman.
KCAW: Why?
Kreiss-Tomkins: Everything is a learning curve. The biggest divide in this building, from what I’ve seen, is not party affiliation, it’s geography. It’s coastal versus rail belt. Juneau is not Washington, D.C. The biggest surprise I’ve had since coming here — and I very consciously tried not to have expectations before coming here — is how collegial this place is. It’s surprisingly bipartisan. There are very meaningful working relationships.
KCAW: During the campaign, one of the primary arguments not to vote for you was that Southeast would be giving up a lot of power if you were elected. Do you feel that’s happened? How’s that shaken out?
Kreiss-Tomkins: Yeah. Southeast, and coastal Alaska — we think in terms of Southeast Alaska, but really, our compatriots from Kodiak and Bristol Bay and the Y-K Delta are just as important to our cause as we are to theirs — lost a tremendous amount of power. And I would argue, and I think almost everybody in this building would agree, that the biggest powershift was not the defeat of Bill Thomas, who I ran against, but the loss of the Senate coalition.

The Senate’s bipartisan coalition was disbanded after Republicans won more seats in November. Kreiss-Tomkins says that the bipartisan coalition was also the Legislature’s coastal caucus. The three most powerful senators in the last session came from coastal communities: Kodiak, Sitka and Bethel.

In this session, he worries those coastal voices are diminished. And as a freshman in the minority, Kreiss-Tomkins doesn’t have a lot of power in the halls of the Capitol. But he says for now, he’s just focusing on doing his job well.

KCAW: Assuming you do want re-election, what do you hope you can tell people in 2014 at the end of your first term, and how are you going to get there?
Kreiss-Tomkins: I’m running for re-election. I believe good government is good politics. So performing in this job to the fullest extent of my ability and working absolutely as hard and as smart and as effective as I can, is the best way in which I can make a bid to have my job for two more years — another two year lease.
KCAW: This job seems very personal to you.
Kreiss-Tomkins: Deeply personal. You’re representing people. People’s lives. The legislation we pass affects people’s lives. I can’t imagine more heady stuff day-to-day to consider.

Our interview ended around 6 p.m., after which Kreiss-Tomkins went to a budget hearing before boarding a ferry for an overnight sailing to Kake. After that, it was back to Juneau, for the start of another week running through the halls of the Capitol, sometimes literally.

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