Eighteen months after backing Westlake and Fansler, Democrats look toward future

In July 2016, Democrats turned out to support Dean Westlake and Zach Fansler. Now, they’re looking toward the future. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

In the summer 2016, Alaska state Democratic leaders supported the primary campaigns of Dean Westlake and Zach Fansler.

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Eighteen months later, both have resigned: Westlake over sexual harassment allegations, Fansler after a woman alleged he assaulted her.

Democratic legislators and one of the women who raised concerns over harassment are considering what should happen next.

At a July 2016 party, many of the leading Democrats in Alaska gathered at an Anchorage house for a fundraiser to benefit two primary challenges – Westlake in District 40 – which covers North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs — and Fansler in District 38, which includes the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Anchorage Rep. Ivy Spohnholz was among those at the party.

At the time, Spohnholz had this to say about Benjamin Nageak and Bob Herron, who then represented the districts.

“What we’ve had are representatives in these two communities that are Democrats in name only,” Spohnholz said.

Westlake and Fansler won their primaries and joined the House last year.

Westlake resigned in December after women inside and the outside of the Capitol accused him of sexual harassment.

Fansler resigned earlier this month, after a woman accused him of repeatedly slapping her, bursting one of her eardrums. His lawyer said Fansler denies the allegations.

After the resignations, Spohnholz said the party will more closely scrutinize candidates’ past conduct in the future.

“I think that what we know now is that in 2018, we have a higher standard for behavior than any of our processes have reflected in the past,” she said, later adding: “In the past the Legislature and political parties have been more likely to hide these problems and to sweep them under the rug.”

In the case of Westlake, some of those who came forward say the harassment occurred before he ran for the Legislature.

News organizations reported in December that he had fathered a child when he was 28 with a girl who was 15 when the child was conceived.

Olivia Garrett is a former legislative aide who said Westlake harassed her after he joined the Legislature.

“They didn’t really do their homework on this guy and it wasn’t like there were just rumors of past misconduct with him,” Garrett said. “There was a whole mountain of evidence of some pretty terrible things he’s done to much younger women. That’s pretty unacceptable, that nobody stopped to say, ‘Hey, maybe we should re-evaluate who we’re giving all of our time and resources to?’”

There’s no public record of harassment involving Fansler.

But community members had expressed concern about his alcohol use before he was elected.

Kuskokwim 300 Chairman Myron Angstman said that while Fansler did a decent job when he was the race’s manager, Angstman also was concerned that Fansler’s drinking may have affected how he did his job on multiple occasions.

Garrett said this is an opportunity for the political parties to more closely scrutinize candidates.

Garrett said one step that could reduce sexual misconduct is increasing the number of women in the Legislature.

“I think that more women in leadership will not solve it entirely, but will make the workplace a lot better for a lot of other women,” Garrett said.

Spohnholz also said have more women would be beneficial.

The District 38 Democrats have started taking applicants and Spohnholz said it would be positive if a woman stepped forward.

“There’s been a great deal of management and leadership research that shows that having more women involved in leadership results in more productive organizations, more effective organizations and, certainly, more professional organizations,” Spohnholz said. “I would welcome an Alaska Native woman to come in from rural Alaska to take the seat.”

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon expects that both political parties will examine candidates’ pasts more closely, including questions about sexual misconduct.

“I think that should be part of the vetting process – there’s no question about that,” Edgmon said. “I would have to say the political parties the major political parties in Alaska, certainly have been watching this very closely and like those of us in the Legislature, don’t want to have to undergo this again in the future.”

Edgmon said the Legislature already has taken steps to become a safer place, including making it mandatory for lawmakers and staff to attend training to prevent sexual and other workplace harassment.

“I think there is a concerted effort to change the culture here in Juneau, and I hope across the state and across the country as well,” Edgmon said. “I view this as a watershed moment and I think we in the Alaska Legislature are doing our best to be part of that.”

In addition, the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy subcommittee has been meeting to discuss changes to the policy.

Rachel Waldholz of Alaska’s Energy Desk and Teresa Cotsirilos of KYUK contributed to this report. 

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.

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