Activist struggles to sell anti-corruption measure to Alaska Democrats

An anti-corruption activist says his initiative effort to beef up the state’s conflict-of-interest laws is likely to fail without support from the Alaska Democratic Party, and it’s unclear whether he’ll get it before a December deadline.

A group led by Ray Metcalfe, a businessman and former Republican legislator, has about 12,000 of the required 28,500 signatures he needs to put his anti-corruption measure on the ballot, and he says $25,000 from the Democrats would pay for enough signature gatherers to get the rest in time.

But Metcalfe says he’s delayed making a formal request of party leaders because he doesn’t have enough support, and two Democratic politicians say they think Metcalfe’s effort overreaches.

The initiative would make it a felony for politicians to pass legislation giving money or “competitive advantages” to themselves, their employers, or their campaign contributors.

It was created with an eye on Republican lawmakers who work in the oil industry and have voted on issues affecting their companies. Metcalfe has written that the initiative would render Alaska’s “fossil fuel lobby nearly powerless.”

ADP Chair Mike Wenstrup said the Democrats are scheduled to discuss Metcalfe’s initiative at their next meeting.

“The Democratic Party is always looking for ways to make government more responsive to Alaskans, and not corporations,” he said in a phone interview. “That particular initiative hasn’t been taken up at the central committee, so the party doesn’t have a position on it one way or another at this time.”

But the two Democratic lawmakers — including one who sits on the central committee — said in interviews that the initiative would render everyone powerless, not just their political opponents.

“You’d have to go through every one of your donors, and every donor of everyone who supported you, before you voted on anything,” Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat and attorney, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I just think it’s unworkable. It’s a good, noble effort on his part — I just think the way it’s written goes overboard.”

Although he ran in the past as a Republican, Metcalfe now sits on the Alaska Democratic Party’s executive committee.

He’s been critical of sitting Republican legislators who work for oil companies and then voted in 2013 to give the state’s oil industry a big tax break. And he often cites the corruption scandal that saw state lawmakers convicted of accepting bribes during the 2006 legislative session in exchange for their support for tax policy favored by the oil industry.

Metcalfe’s initiative, he said in a phone interview Tuesday, grew out of a Democratic party effort several years ago to examine how to combat corruption in the Legislature.

The language of the initiative says it should be “narrowly construed,” and it exempts lawmakers’ votes on legislation that affects a broad spectrum of the public or has only minor financial impacts.

But Metcalfe acknowledged the initiative could still keep some Democratic legislators from voting on legislation related to unions, which frequently support Democratic campaigns.

“Everybody in the Legislature has a sugar daddy,” Metcalfe said.

He maintained that left-wing causes would still come out ahead, saying his effort would blunt the political power of conservative organizations with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers.

“The Koch brothers have fire hoses, we have squirt guns, and we’re in a water fight,” Metcalfe said. If both sides put down their weapons, he added: “We come out ahead.”

In a subsequent email, Metcalfe said that by his interpretation of the initiative, Wielechowski, who works for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, could vote on other unions’ contracts, though not those specifically for the IBEW.

One local attorney with experience in initiative law, however, said it would be difficult to predict how broadly the measure would apply.

“Ultimately, the interpretation is going to be up to a judge or a court,” the attorney, Tim McKeever, said in a phone interview. “It’s a risky slope, because you never know exactly how it’s going to be interpreted.”

Sen. Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat, said Metcalfe has “the right idea” with his proposal. But it goes too far, she said, because “it applies to everybody who doesn’t fund their own campaign.”

“In the world we’re in, we have to raise money,” Gardner said in a phone interview.

Gardner added the Legislature should have stricter conflict of interest laws. And she said creating a system of publicly funded campaigns could be another way of preventing corruption.

But, she pointed out, voters rejected public financing in a 2008 initiative vote, 64 percent to 36 percent. For now, Gardner said: “I don’t have a better answer.”