What’s up with the Mat-Su, and why is it steering Alaska’s politics?

Clockwise from top left: Palmer in 2016. (Creative Commons photo by Geoff Alexander)
Gov. Mike Dunleavy leaves the House chambers in Juneau after delivering the annual State of the State address to the Alaska Legislature on Jan. 22, 2019. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
The Parks Highway near Wasilla in August 2014. (Creative Commons photo by Bernt Rostad)
Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, speaks during a House floor session on March 11, 2019. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
The Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce in August 2010. (Creative Commons photo by Timothy Wildey)
Former Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at the 2016 Politicon at the in Pasadena, California, on June 26, 2016. (Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore)

Over the last several decades, the population of Matanuska and Susitna valleys has grown dramatically. Back in 1980, fewer than one in 22 Alaskans lived in the Mat-Su Borough. As of 2017, it’s about one in seven. With that boom has come political power — and the rise of a particular brand of conservatism.

You can hear the rhetorical echoes between Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the last governor who called the Mat-Su region home when her political career began:

Their warnings about government excess and championing of direct democracy echo beyond the governor’s podium.

A few weekends ago, the public railed against ferry system cuts across Southeast, Medicaid cuts in Bethel, K-12 and the university cuts in Anchorage, and social services cuts in Fairbanks. There were supporters of Dunleavy’s plan, too, but they were clearly the minority.

But there was one House Finance Committee meeting that weekend where things went differently. In Wasilla more than 100 people waited as long as 5 hours to weigh in on the state budget there.

“Welcome to Mat-Su,” Ron Johnson of Wasilla began. “And I want to make it clear, welcome to Dunleavy country. We fully support this governor and his budget plan.”

There were plenty of opponents, too, but overall testimony at the Mat-Su Legislative Information Office leaned pro-Dunleavy. About 60-40 or 55-45, depending on how you count some of the ambiguous and single-subject speakers. Here’s a sample of some of the most animated pro-Dunleavy speakers. Heads up, they are not into political correctness.

“I feed a family of five,” said Joel Sigman of Wasilla. “You ever have Top Ramen and squirrel? Well that’s what it is. … And you guys want to take our permanent fund — that hurts.”

“Government at its very best is a machine where you put in a dollar and it craps out a quarter,” said Tiana Thomas of the greater Wasilla area.

“Our government in the past has been spending money like a 17-year-old girl on her birthday with daddy’s credit card at the mall, saying, ‘Have fun,’” said Nick Brockett of Big Lake.

“When I began working, between ’75 and this year, I’ve averaged $13,500 a year. I managed to stay out of jail. I managed to buy property. I managed to stay off the government tit,” said Kelley Griffin of Wasilla. “All you hear is, ‘More, more, more, more, more!’ – it angers me. It completely angers me.”

Amid “Amens!” and applause, Greg Pugh of Palmer practically shouted his testimony. “This is my time, and I want to speak! This is wrong and it should be brought to the ballot box. … Let the republic pick the winners and losers. We are the republic! And let us pick what we want and the size of government we want, the schools we want, the community we want. … That’s the true Alaskan way! That’s true freedom!”

There was a notable schism among Dunleavy’s supporters. Many said that to balance the budget, deep reductions to state services simply must happen, which will hurt. Others said their lives would actually improve, that with bigger permanent fund dividends, the private sector will step in and outperform the state services they replace.

John Wood was a staffer to Dunleavy when the governor was a state senator. Wood did not attend the testimony, but he knows the area’s politics. He’s the head of the Republican Party for House District 10 in the Susitna Valley.

That’s the district that ousted incumbent Republican Rep. Wes Keller in favor of David Eastman in 2016. And re-elected Eastman in 2018 after he infamously said that some village women are glad to get pregnant to get Medicaid-funded trips to Anchorage for abortions. He frequently cast far-right, one-man dissenting votes in the House. He even got kicked off of an ethics committee by his peers for leaking confidential information.

More recently, he posted a picture of himself holding a water bottle that says “black rifles matter” and wrote, “To be clear, I firmly oppose the Marxist agenda of the group Black Lives Matter.”

With the 2020 Census on the horizon and legislative districts to be redrawn, the region’s voices are likely to get louder in the next decade.

Wood sums up the politics of the area like this: “Basically a pretty conservative outlook on life and what they expect from the government or don’t expect from the government, depending on your perspective. And basically, they just want to be left alone. … If indeed they could have minimal government, that’s their first choice.”

Wood isn’t certain what would happen to Alaska’s economy if state services and jobs get axed.

“When you take that many people that are going to be spending their paychecks in the local economy that are no longer in those jobs, of course, it will end up with a lower economic activity — unless the private sector picks it on up, which — that’s unpredictable,” Wood said. “You know, I happen to be of the school that it will, but I could be totally wrong.”

There’s no shortage of uncertainty in Alaska, from city halls, to the floor of the House of Representatives. Just Thursday, it was a theme in a budget debate speech by Eastman.

“Even though my district is large and has a disproportionately higher unemployment rate, my district is one of the ones continuing to grow,” Eastman said.

Right now, nine of the Legislature’s 60 seats are held by lawmakers who live in the Mat-Su Borough. After the 2020 Census, an appointed board will get the first crack at redrawing district lines to reflect how the population has shifted geographically.