Recall campaign enters second stage with signature show of strength

August was a bad month for Gov. Mike Dunleavy. September may not be an improvement.

About 10,000 Alaskans signed the recall petitions on Aug. 1, an opening show of strength in response to eight months of mistakes and bad policy decisions made without regard to public comments or the Alaska Legislature, which rejected almost everything he proposed on the budget.

A little more than a month into the process and the first stage of the recall is complete today with the submission of 49,006 signatures, which is remarkable because it happened without any advertising or a serious fund-raising campaign. The next steps will require fund-raising and a more structured campaign.

When a much smaller group tried to recall former Gov. Wally Hickel and Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill in the early 1990s, it took more than a year to wrap up the first step and the effort faltered because it didn’t have the energy or the momentum that was on display across Alaska for the past month.

Elections Director Gail Fenumiai, who has a reputation for professionalism and a long track record, will now oversee the process of making sure the minimum number of signatures are on the Recall Dunleavy petitions—28,501—and that the grounds are sufficient to move ahead.

To that end, Attorney General Kevin Clarkson will take his time to produce a windy decision that the recall plan is invalid, but it’s a good bet that the courts will say Clarkson isn’t reading the law or the case history with an open mind.

Then the sponsors will have to gather more than 71,000 signatures to get the recall election on the ballot and force a statewide election. Based on the success of this first stage, that is not an insurmountable goal, though it will be made more difficult because it will probably have to take place during the winter or late spring.

The timing is uncertain because the Dunleavy administration may try to go as slowly as possible, but administrative delays would increase the risk of driving more people into the recall camp, which is something that Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who oversees elections, should keep in mind. The Dunleavy administration may be hoping that the longer this is drawn out, the more momentum will be lost.

Much of that will depend upon whether Dunleavy sticks to his plan to cut K-12 schools by $330 million, which would force the layoff of thousands of teachers statewide, and the hundreds of millions of other budget cuts he continues to talk about. If Dunleavy refuses to change course on schools, which we will know by December, it will be smooth sailing for the recall campaign.

Aside from education, the other big cut to state spending he is pushing is a reduction in health care services to poor people, the impact of which is harder to explain and understand. The 217,000 recipients of Medicaid are not organized in a cohesive group and many do not have political power.

At some point, the size of the dividend will be a factor as well.

The recall backers have asked for a state decision on the application in a month.

It is far too soon to say what will happen with the recall movement in the end, but it has already had an impact on the Dunleavy administration, forcing the governor to abandon some budget cuts.

In June, Dunleavy had no hesitation about vetoes that crippled the University of Alaska, ended Senior Benefits and wiped out many programs that Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature supported. His ill-advised decision in June on the university, though he backtracked in August, will have a long-lasting negative impact on education in the state.

By the final days of summer, he was trying to distance himself from almost everything he championed in June, claiming that he had only made so many vetoes so Alaskans would realize he was serious about vetoes. It’s the kind of thing you say, when you won’t admit a mistake.

He reversed himself on a $110 million University of Alaska cut and about $40 million elsewhere. He invented a story that this was a coherent process and that the recall campaign had nothing to do with his budget backsliding.

"You don't get to this point unless you veto," Dunleavy said in August.

You don’t get to this point unless you are running away from what you did in June.

The recall campaign has proven to be an effective way to capture Dunleavy's attention, the healthy start of a statewide conversation about Alaska’s future.

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