A copy of the Alaska Constitution is seen on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
A group of conservative Alaskans, headed by a leading member of the Alaska Republican Party, has formed a new campaign organization intended to encourage Alaskans to call a constitutional convention and allow sweeping changes in the way Alaska runs its government, sets its budget and regulates the lives of its residents.
Jim Minnery, president of the anti-abortion Alaska Family Council, announced the creation of ConventionYes on Monday. Minnery is a member of the new group’s steering committee. The group’s chair is Craig Campbell, national committeeman for the Alaska Republican Party.
“The Constitutional Convention call is a fundamental question for ‘We the People,’” Campbell said in a prepared statement. “This is an opportunity for us to go back to see where our state is and where we want to go and under what rules we want to live by.”
Alaskans are asked once per decade whether they want to call a convention, and the next vote is on the Nov. 8 general-election ballot.
Convention opponents have been campaigning for months, arguing that a convention — particularly in a politically polarized time — will cause uncertainty and chaos.
“It is a slippery path, and once you decide to open up a convention, the constitution is very clear that delegates who are selected are completely free to entirely rewrite the document,” said Bruce Botelho, a former Democratic attorney general who chairs the leading anti-convention group.
The Alaska Supreme Court has repeatedly interpreted Alaska’s constitutional right to privacy to cover health care, including access to abortion.
A convention could be a first step to banning or limiting access here, either directly — by rewriting the privacy clause — or indirectly, by changing how judges are chosen.
R. Keith Heim, a member of the ConventionYes steering committee, said his biggest interest is changing the constitution to mandate large Permanent Fund dividends.
“The biggest driving force for the convention, yes, is to basically put this Permanent Fund dividend into the constitution,” he said.
Asked about the abortion issue, Heim said each member of the steering committee has “our own personal things that we’re bringing to the group.”
Among the other members are Jake Libbey, publisher of the conservative Christian website the Alaska Watchman; former Alaska legislator Fritz Pettyjohn; conservative Alaska environmental scientist and lodge owner Fred Vreeman; and Leigh Sloan, an Anchorage woman who says on her website that her “desire is to shift paradigms in our culture to reflect kingdom truths.”
The latter term is sometimes used to describe evangelical Christian ideals.
The group has not yet registered with the Alaska Public Offices Commission and lists its top three donors as two members of the steering committee and a relative of Pettyjohn.
In comparison, the vote-no group Defend Our Constitution is well established and well-funded, having listed more than $320,000 in donations as of its latest disclosure report.
Among the supporters of the “vote no” cause are the chambers of commerce in Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan, the Alaska Municipal League, and the regional Native corporations Sealaska and Doyon Ltd.
Many independent and Democratic politicians oppose the convention idea, as do some Republican candidates.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy is a notable exception, saying in an interview earlier this month that he will not advise Alaskans to vote for or against the convention. Despite that stance, Dunleavy voiced many of the talking points espoused by the new vote-yes group.
Heim said one of the new group’s key goals is to overcome the vote-no group’s assertions that the convention will cause chaos.
He said it’s important to understand that voting yes doesn’t trigger immediate action. State lawmakers will have a chance to pass enabling legislation, there will be a vote for delegates, and there will be a third vote to decide whether to accept what those delegates decide, a process that is likely to take years.
“We’ve just got to get the people to understand that voting yes is not going to kill the state,” he said. “It’s going to enable the people to say, ‘I don’t think this is right.’”
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