At 27, Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins is still the youngest lawmaker in Alaska. But this isn’t his first rodeo. The lifelong Sitkan is running for his third term in office to represent House District 35, which includes Sitka, Petersburg, Hoonah, and 18 other rural communities. He spoke with KCAW’s Emily Kwong about his track record, voting plans, and hopes for a bi-partisan coalition.
Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins can talk with enthusiasm about pretty much anything: fisheries, subsistence, native languages. But his face clouded somewhat when I asked who he was going to vote for on November 8th. “Not Trump!,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “I’m probably voting for Clinton. I have my own concerns there, but…uh, I don’t even really want to focus on the presidential race because it’s such a negative thing,” he added.
Kreiss-Tomkins is a pretty positive guy. At 23, he left Yale University to run against Haines Republican Bill Thomas. He won by a nose, with just 32 votes. And two years ago, when challenged by Republican Steven Samuelson, he won by over 1000 votes. Kreiss-Tomkins is hoping to repeat history this year, not only for himself, but for Democrats around the state. “If you look at how close the votes were in the House this last session, particularly lots of 19-21 kinds of votes, we’re very close [to having a bipartisan coalition,]” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
All 40 seats in the House are up for re-election this year and 28 of those races are considered competitive. Should the election produce an evenly split House, Kreiss-Tomkins said there’s conversation brewing in the capital to form a bi-partisan coalition, just like the one formed in the Alaska State Senate in 2006. “[If] you have a bipartisan coalition, you start to govern from the middle. You put aside the really divisive, ideological, kind of performative, theatrical political issues. And you just focus on the meat and potatoes stuff that needs to get done, that’s going to be in the interest of Alaska in the long term,” he said.
His #1 concern? Getting the legislature to actually balance the state budget. They failed to do so last year and Governor Bill Walker vetoed items across the board, most notably capping PFD checks at $1,022. While he supported the Governor’s actions, Kreiss-Tomkins wants the legislature to agree on a combination of fiscal solutions that have staying power.
“I’m interested in supporting a plan that actually works. There’s no funny math. There’s no budgeting gimmicks, but actually balances the budget and doesn’t leave Alaska in the lurch one or two or three years from now when we’re potentially out of savings. Because at that point, there are no budgeting gimmicks,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “Reality is cold and hard and severe and I have no interest in putting the state in that position.”
Kreiss-Tomkins wouldn’t go into detail about what kinds of cuts or taxes he’d support. But he expressed interest in the fiscal plan of Representative Paul Seaton, which proposes a state income tax and restructuring the permanent fund. And when it comes to cuts, Kreiss-Tomkins said he’d want the burden to be spread evenly. “I think fairness is the most important concept with all of this. Not something that whacks one group of people and leaves others harmless.”
In the past, Kreiss-Tomkins has gone to bat for education, public media, and fisheries. Last week, he and Representative Dan Ortiz wrote a letter to Governor Bill Walker seeking federal disaster relief for Southeast’s pink salmon fisheries. His office figured out the region qualified under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and argued that Southeast should be included. The Governor agreed and included Southeast in his request for federal disaster aid.
Kreiss-Tomkins says his office was one of the most productive this term and he’s not entirely wrong about that. He’s been the primary sponsor on 15 bills this term. That’s more than the average legislator. Only eight lawmakers have sponsored more. And one bill to digitize state agency reports – instead of printing – passed the House. If passed in the Senate, HB 68 would save the state half a million dollars.
“Theoretically, every bill should be a solution to some kind of problem or an improvement on some kind of system. And we’re fascinated with how to do things better,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
In his first term, Kreiss-Tomkins sponsored a bill that passed both the House and the Senate. HB 216 made Native Languages official languages of the state. He hasn’t had that kind of success this term, but Kreiss-Tomkins said there’s other ways to measure the efficacy of a lawmaker than law passing.
Last session, he amended HB 217 – a bill establishing a statewide design contest for a special edition of the Alaska license plate – into another bill. That bill became law, thus legalizing the license plate contest. Kreiss-Tomkins said, “It’s a cool idea. It’s going to generate money for the Alaska State Council on the arts and help them become more revenue self-sufficient. And hopefully be a fun and exciting thing that makes Alaskans really passionate about this amazing place we live in.”
Kreiss-Tomkins’s opponent this race is Republican Sheila Finkenbinder, who has previously said that while the young lawmaker can “talk the talk,” she has more life experience. To that, Kreiss-Tomkins responded, “I’ve experienced serving in the legislature. I have my own experience. I have four years of it and I’m proud of it. I’ve done a good job for this district and I want to continue doing a good job for this district. Age is not what determines your ability to perform, necessarily. Your performance should be judged for your performance.”
And Kreiss-Tomkins believes his performance is enough to restore him to the Alaska State Legislature.