In 2013, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins went to Juneau as a 23-year-old novice lawmaker. He returned last week, at the end of his freshman term, as the sponsor of a successful Native languages bill that got national attention.
Kreiss-Tomkins is up for reelection in November. He stopped by KCAW to discuss his summer plans, the virtues of sometimes doing nothing, and how to cope with Juneau when you’re a freshman in the minority.
Ask Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins what’s on his agenda for this summer, and he says,
KREISS-TOMKINS: Oh, all sorts of stuff. Do you mind if I get my phone?
Kreiss-Tomkins is a man in motion. He’s wearing a Boston Marathon shirt with running shorts and sneakers, and when he talks policy, his enthusiasm overflows into emphatic hand gestures. When you ask what he’s paying attention to right now, you get a whole list.
KREISS-TOMKINS: It’s a big list…ah, ok, starting at 17, ending at 35, what is that? 18 different items.
That’s eighteen issues that he and his staff want to dig into over the summer, to see if there is legislation they can introduce next year. That is, if he wins reelection in November and returns to Juneau next January.
The list includes dealing with derelict boats; helping small breweries like Sitka’s Baranof Island Brewing Company cut through red tape; and finding ways to increase the number of fishing permits held locally, instead of by fishermen based outside the state.
One thing he’s really excited about:
KREISS-TOMKINS: Here’s another one that I’m personally very fond of, is looking at insurance law in Alaska.
Yep, insurance law. He’d like to see car insurance based on the number of miles a person drives, which would lower costs for people in rural Alaskan towns without big road systems.
If there’s a theme here, it’s a kind of legislative modesty.
KCAW: These aren’t grand ideological things you’re excited about.
KREISS-TOMKINS: My job is to make peoples’ lives better! And there are so many ways to do that. You don’t have to wage ideological warfare to make Alaska a better place to live. There are these concrete, applicable ideas that should be bipartisan, they should unite people. So that’s what really gets me excited, things like car insurance! Because that affects anyone who owns a car and would have a special benefit to Alaskans.
This approach guided his time in Juneau, Kreiss-Tomkins says. As a freshman and a member of the Democratic minority, he came into office with pretty much no clout. He dealt with this in his first year, he says, with a deliberate strategy of doing – nothing. He didn’t try to pass any legislation, he said, instead reaching out to all 59 of his fellow lawmakers. He decided he would only introduce bills that drew bipartisan support. That approach, he says, paid off in his second year.
KREISS-TOMKINS: We have the smallest bicameral legislature in the nation, so arguably more than any other state in the United States, you can get a lot done in Alaska based on the strength of personal relationships regardless of your caucus, regardless of whether you’re rural or urban, regardless of whether you’re a Democrat or Republican.
This year, Kreiss-Tomkins introduced two bills that made it through the legislature: one creates a state holiday recognizing Tlingit civil rights leader Walter Soboleff. The other recognizes 20 Native languages as official Alaskan languages.
Kreiss-Tomkins said the Native languages bill alone made the last two years worth it.
KREISS-TOMKINS: When you think about the kind of legacy you can leave with your life, a measurable impact on the world, that you can think of in concrete terms — trying to help save a language, or revitalize a language, which is a way of looking at and understanding the world of immense meaning to so many people, but especially the people of that culture…that’s profound.
Kreiss-Tomkins’ next challenge will be a run for reelection. His House district has been redrawn: Haines and Metlakatla are out, northern Prince of Wales Island and Petersburg are in, and Petersburg Republican Steven Samuelson has said he will run for the seat.
Kreiss-Tomkins says he will run the way he did the first time around: door to door.
One of the things he’ll be talking about is his support for the referendum this summer to repeal SB21, the new oil tax regime passed by the legislature last year. Kreiss-Tomkins argues that SB21 is a major give-away to oil companies.
KREISS-TOMKINS: They’re our partners but they’re not our friends, there’s a difference between those two. Trust but verify, as Ronald Reagan would say, and I feel the state needs to be rigorous with its verification when we’re talking about our sovereign resource, the biggest source of revenue for the state of Alaska. And I think there are some red flags that are out there that need to be investigated.
Just add it to the list.