Bethany Marcum was rejected by a 29-31 vote to serve on the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents during a joint session of the Alaska Legislature on Tuesday, the only nominee among dozens by Gov. Mike Dunleavy who was not confirmed.
The House and Senate considered nearly 80 nominees, including five commissioners of state departments, the majority of whom were confirmed without objection. Only a handful of nominees received 10 or more opposing votes.
Marcum, who as executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum supported a budget by Dunleavy in 2019 that cut the university system’s funding by 40%, provoked impassioned speeches by legislators for and against her during the nearly three-hour joint session. Among those voicing the strongest opposition was state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, whose description of previous encounters with Marcum several years ago where she allegedly misrepresented her knowledge of public education during policy discussions about the issue became a focal point in the debate.
According to Kiehl, Marcum expressed distress because “children are trapped in Alaska’s education system,” and claimed she was simply a mother advocating for a policy without understanding clearly how the Legislature works. But she had previously worked as an aide for the legislator sponsoring the proposal.
“If you cannot trust the people you work with you cannot work with them,” Kiehl said. “The university has policies on academic integrity. We don’t let students dissemble, plagiarize, misrepresent. Mr. President, we cannot, we must not appoint a regent who does.”
Kiehl’s comments set off a debate about whether Marcum was being subject to unfair accusations — not just during the confirmation vote, but during the overall nominating process.
“What I cannot do is at this exact moment, when I’m about to vote, I can’t talk with the person whose character is under assault,” said Rep. David Eastman, a Wasilla Republican who ultimately voted in favor of Marcum. “I can’t ask for more perspective because the committee process is already complete.”
Marcum has an extensive Alaska policy background, including education issues, and political stances that might be contrary to those most popular within the university system shouldn’t be disqualifying, said House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, an Eagle River Republican.
“I watched her confirmation hearing in the House Education Committee, and I saw her being as tremendously respectful of the process and of the individuals involved in that process even as they assailed her — sometimes fairly, but sometimes I believe unfairly — and she always maintained respect and decorum.”
Also, being a university regent who simply believes more funding can resolve issues isn’t practical or reflective of the state’s fiscal realities, Saddler said.
“I think that good management does not always mean more, more degrees, more staff more money,” he said. “In the horticultural world sometimes if you want a stronger tree you have to cut back the branches occasionally so they grow stronger in the future. That may be what she’s has been trying to do.”
Juneau Democratic Reps. Sara Hannan and Andi Story were among those who voted against Marcum’s nomination. Story, a member of the House Education Committee who questioned Marcum’s desire to support education during a confirmation hearing, said during floor debate the nominee seems unwilling to be open-minded to different viewpoints.
“I’ve had the experience of talking about research, our own University of Alaska (Institute of Social and Economic Research), and it being dismissed,” Story said. “And that gives me great pause because we must must look at all the information before us. And sometimes we have to adjust our thinking and unlearn what we have learned.”
Some of the opposition to Marcum was also based on her role as a member of the state redistricting board, which a judge ruled last year attempted illegal gerrymandering in secret that violated open meetings laws. Rep. Andrew Gray, an Anchorage Democrat, said Marcum wasn’t just one of the votes in favor of such action — she was its driving force.
“This nominee drove what has been a partisan gerrymander that would have disenfranchised the voters of east Anchorage and she did it twice,” he said. “I do not believe we can trust somebody who went against the Alaska Constitution twice as ruled by the Alaska Supreme Court.”
Marcum, who was reportedly out of state during the joint session, told the conservative news site Must Read Alaska the vote went about as she expected.
Dunleavy, whose office sent out a news release immediately after all five of his department commissioners were confirmed, did not respond to questions about Marcum’s rejection. Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor, also declined to respond to questions about a new nominee, including the possibility of a recess appointment, aside from stating “the governor’s office will make an announcement when a new appointee to the board of regents is made.”
Marcum had to resign from the redistricting board when she was nominated as a regent and the position has been open ever since. The redistricting board is scheduled to meet Monday when one of the agenda items is “new member swearing in, pending appointment.” Dunleavy’s office did not respond to a question about whether he is considering reappointing Marcum to the board.
All other nominees confirmed
Several other nominees received a significant number of opposing votes, but only a few faced especially narrow votes.
Besides Marcum, the most opposition was to Brett Huber Sr.’s nomination to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Huber, a political operative who successfully managed Dunleavy’s 2018 campaign and was targeted by two watchdog groups for alleged improprieties during the governor’s 2022 reelection campaign, was confirmed by a 34-26 vote after Hannan raised the official objection to his confirmation.
“My concern is Mr. Huber’s career in politics have largely been in activist positions of a partisan nature running campaigns, and being an advisor to a governor,” she said. “But this position is not to advise the governor. This position is to serve Alaska’s interest in oil and gas oversight. I don’t believe that Mr. Huber has the background to serve us well in that.”
Support for Huber was voiced by Rep. Tom McKay, an Anchorage Republican who chairs the House Resources Committee and said he’s worked with the nominee several times during this session as a result.
“I’ve found him to be highly qualified and a very quick study,” McKay said. “I was very impressed with his ability to pick up very quickly on the highly complex technical aspects of that job.”
Also receiving enough opposition to make the vote somewhat close was James Fields’ nomination to a third term on the state Board of Education and Early Development. State Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said her opposition was due to his sudden introduction of a resolution, which passed unanimously, recommending the state adopt rules banning transgender females from girls sports teams during a board meeting in March.
“In (our) committee Mr. Fields admitted that he capitulated to public pressure by adding an amendment at the last moment to the agenda on the state board’s recent meeting,” Tobin said. “This is not what Alaskans need. I have significant concerns about reports that Mr. Fields also engaged in silencing dissent during that state board of education meeting.”
Among those voicing support for Fields was state Sen. Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican, who said the resolution was a nonbinding measure that was formally considered more than a month later during a meeting by the Alaska School Activities Association, which accepted a full day of public testimony before deciding against the immediate implementation of such a policy.
“This has to do with fairness and sports,” Hughes said. “It was not outside the bylaws. It also was not setting a policy, but it was urging the Alaska School Activities Association to consider a policy.”
While Dunleavy’s commissioners all were confirmed with little difficulty, an official objection was made by Hannan to Adam Crum heading the Department of Revenue. She said his previous job as commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services led up to a crisis-level backlog of food stamp applications that emerged last September is expected to take many more months to resolve.
“I cannot in good conscience support this commissioner moving to another job at the State of Alaska after leaving tens of thousands of Alaskans behind and hungry during the winter,” Hannan said.
Most other legislators speaking on his nomination offered support, noting among other things his leadership of the department during the COVID-19 pandemic and current work as the state deals with a lower-than-expected spring revenue forecast.
“He put Alaska ahead of the curve in terms of resources that helped save this great state,” said Sen. David Wilson, a Wasilla Republican, referring to the pandemic. As for the food stamp crisis, Wilson said “those problems were a systemic issue that occurred in a prior administration.”
The vote to confirm Crum was 55-5, with Kiehl and Story both voting in favor.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com