There will be a race for the House District 35 seat in the legislature, but not until fall. As of Wednesday’s deadline (6-1-16), only one candidate each from the Democratic and Republican parties has filed to run for election this November.
House District 35 includes Sitka, Petersburg, Hoonah, and the many smaller communities sprinkled in between.
In the last election, a Republican from Petersburg, Steven Samuelson, stepped up to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Sitka’s Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins.
This time around, Sitka Republicans are putting their own candidate forward.
“Clearly, it would give anyone pause, whether they wanted to jump into a situation like that. But someone has to do it. Not only in the state but in Southeast needs our support and expertise. And I feel like I can offer that as well as anyone else.”
This is Sheila Finkenbinder, who’s lived in Sitka for 25 years. She’s a former aide to Rep. Peggy Wilson, and the former director of Sitka’s Chamber of Commerce. Finkenbinder will be facing 2-term incumbent Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins.
“I think the goal is to bring as much marginal improvement over the baseline as possible. And that’s what I enjoy about the work, even though the circumstances are pretty darn unfortunate right now, fiscally speaking and otherwise,” said Tomkins.
Those unfortunate circumstances are a $4-billion state budget deficit, something no one foresaw when Kreiss-Tomkins ran for election the first time in 2012. Finkenbinder hopes to convince voters that adding another Republican to the House majority would help the district, and reinforce the work of long-time senator Bert Stedman, who will be running unopposed this fall.
“Someone who could bring a little more strength to our representation up there, and help Bert (Stedman) with economic, and infrastructure, and resource development issues. We just don’t think it’s happening,” she said.
Kreiss-Tomkins, however, argues that it’s never been more advantageous to be a Democrat. To win the three-quarter majority needed to tap the state’s savings accounts, Republicans have had to court the votes of Democrats. The results have been significant.
“We just restored tens of millions of dollars of programs important to rural and coastal Alaska for public education, public media and public radio for that matter, the ferry system, the Commercial Fisheries division of ADF&G through negotiation and the budget process. And that’s probably more concentrated political leverage than exists anywhere in the legislature right now.”
Finkenbinder came to Sitka with her late husband, Ken, in a trimaran sailboat and fell in love with the place. She’s raised her family here, and she’s been active in the community. She founded and ran a non-profit business incubator for ten years called Sitka Works, and she serves on the board of the Sitka Historical Society and the Sitka Republican Women.
Given her activity in politics, it’s natural to wonder why she didn’t throw her hat in the ring in 2012, when re-districting left the House 35 seat wide open, with only Haines Republican Rep. Bill Thomas the heir apparent.
Finkenbinder says party loyalty was important in the decision by Sitka Republicans to stand down.
“He was after all Finance Chair in the House and had a lot of seniority. He was well-respected and known in the legislature. Why would we challenge that?”
Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, however, pounced on the opportunity. The 23-year-old was just a senior thesis away from his undergraduate degree at Yale University when he launched an all-out campaign to win the seat. He traveled the district extensively, expertly used social media, and defeated Thomas by 34 votes.
He became the legislature’s youngest member at the time, but never got around to finishing that senior paper.
“No! (Laughs) I left school to run and have not come back.”
Kreiss-Tomkins admits that while it’s no substitute for academics, he does send his professors copies of his legislative newsletter.