Bipartisan bowling: Pols roll off steam

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers gather each week in the state capital ready to rumble, but it’s not to continue their already tense and rocky negotiations over the $3.5 billion budget deficit. Or some other partisan issue.

Republicans and Democrats alike assemble, inside a bowling alley, to talk strikes, spares and gutter balls. There’s even room for lobbyists, legislative staff and, for the first time in 30 years, a seated governor.

This year, Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, is on the same team as the Republican House speaker, Mike Chenault.

“We may have our differences of opinion on how we do things. The goal is still the same,” said Chenault, adding that he and Walker rarely talk shop — like Medicaid expansion or building a multibillion natural gas pipeline — at the alley.

Bipartisan events like the bowling league do happen elsewhere.

In Oklahoma, lawmakers in the Senate challenge their House colleagues in a softball game every year. In Idaho, lawmakers go to the shooting range and had their first bipartisan go-cart racing night this month. And in Maryland, members gather for a spirited chess tournament.

In Alaska, the bowling league, started three decades ago by legislators and staff, was engineered to encourage cross-aisle play at the alley. And if that spills over to civil discussions in the House and Senate chambers, that’s only a bonus.

A former Republican state senator, the late Tim Kelly, started the league in 1987.

Longtime legislative aide Jack Armstrong, whose team is named Fishy Cabinet, said Kelly’s bowling ball has become a roving trophy awarded to each year’s winning team. Armstrong has been involved with the league since the late-1980s.

The bipartisan mix of legislators, aides and lobbyists on each team was encouraged, he said, and continues today.

“It’s just a way to get away from the building and enjoy the company of the people you work with,” Armstrong said.

A tinny version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend” blared over the speakers during league play on a recent Thursday evening.

The air thickened with the heavy thud of bowling balls hitting polished wooden floors, pins rattling and people rushing in from late committee meetings — trading heels or loafers for bowling shoes.

The governor warmed up for his inaugural game alongside Chenault and his other teammates, including two Democrats from the House and two staff members for Republican lawmakers.

Nearby, Walker’s wife, Donna Walker, and his press secretaries sat at a table watching the game.

“Does the cheering section need a pitcher of beer?” said Democrat state Rep. Les Gara, of Anchorage, as he traded his pinstripe button up for a red T-shirt and waited for the rest of his team, named Strike Back.

After Gara’s teammates arrived, they helped raise the noise level of the bowling alley as they cheered each other on.

Kim Skipper, a staff member for a Republican House member, could barely contain her enthusiasm for the game.

She jumped down the steps leading to the team’s table and lane, running to high-five Gara when he picked up a split or leaning comically far to one side or the other, hoping to keep Republican Rep. Steve Thompson’s ball out of the gutter.

“We don’t get along well at the Capitol, but we love to bowl,” said Thompson, of Fairbanks. “Inside the building, they build up sort of false impressions of people across the aisle. Here, they get to know them and see that’s kind of silly.”

___

Associated Press writers Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland; Kimberlee Kruesi in Boise, Idaho, and Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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