Servers, bartenders grapple with uncertainty after dine-in service halted across Alaska

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Former Spenard Roadhouse bartender Shane Russell, photographed with his girlfriend Emma Clyne at their home on Friday, March 20, 2020. Russell was let go from the popular Spenard eatery after Mayor Ethan Berkowitz ordered the closure of all restaurants to anything but take-out service. Clyne also works at the resturant, dealing with to-go orders, but has seen her hours cut. They estimate that as a household, they have lost about 75% of their normal income. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

This article was originally written for the Anchorage Daily News.

 

About 30 minutes before Danielle Bedard, a server at Muse, clocked in March 12, her manager called and told her she wouldn’t be needed. By 6 p.m. the next day, the Anchorage Museum, along with Muse and the Seed Lab, had closed.

“Within 24 hours, we had gotten an email that said, ‘This is how you file for unemployment, let me know if you guys need help with anything and I’ll see you guys in April,’” Bedard said.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s order prohibiting dine-in service at restaurants, bars and breweries went into effect March 16. That was followed a couple days later by statewide restrictions through April 1. (Take-out and delivery is still allowed.)

Bedard hasn’t made a decision yet on whether or not to file for unemployment. As a military spouse, she says her part-time job Muse was supplemental income.

“It’s hard,” Bedard said. “We work for an independent woman, we’re contracted through the [Anchorage] Museum. This is affecting as high up as her and as far down as part-time servers — everybody in-between.”

Misha Daniels is a bartender at Mad Myrna’s and a “super part-time” fill-in at Darwin’s Theory. She’s also 39 weeks pregnant.

With service industry friends in bigger cities like Seattle, New York and New Orleans, Daniels has been keeping a close eye on closures in the Lower 48.

“I knew it was coming… I’ve already been getting ready for maternity leave, so for me personally, I already had a buffer of ‘I’m planning on taking a couple of months off,’” Daniels said. “I’m really concerned about my friends that are paycheck to paycheck — that are night by night, like, ‘If I don’t make this much money, I can’t make rent tomorrow.’”

Daniels said many of her friends and fellow bartenders were in a tough spot even before the closure — they were uncomfortable going to work and possibly coming into contact with the virus, but couldn’t afford to stay home.

“In the service industry, we’re really prone to illness because you have to get close to people to talk to them,” Daniels said.

“People get drunk and when they are starting to get drunk they’re spitting when they talk, you’re handling their glassware and you’re handling cash. There are so many points of contact for germs… In the service industry, every single one of us has gone to work when we knew we shouldn’t have because we felt like we had to tough it out,” Daniels said.

And, Daniels said, she’s concerned about what she’ll return to.

“I’m worried about when I’m ready to go back to work, will there be a work to go back to? Will there be people sitting at the bar with money to spend?” Daniels said.

With the dining-in restriction has come a wave of layoffs. Shane Russell has been a bartender at Spenard Roadhouse on and off for seven years. He was laid off March 17.

He’d said he’ll probably be filing for unemployment. He’s also out of luck with his other job; he’s a musician, but his band won’t be performing for a crowd anytime soon.

“I’m honestly just laying low and trying to tough it out,” Russell said. “Music-wise, I mean even my band is taking a break from practicing and taking some time to rest…. [Spenard Roadhouse is] my second home, a second family… I feel confident that if they are able to open the bar again that I will be highly considered for my job back. It could be a blessing in disguise and maybe it’s time to become an at-home rockstar.”

Drenushe Hukali works at her family’s restaurant, Sami’s City Diner. She, along with her brother and sister, are all full-time servers. The diner is the main source of income for her family.

With 30 employees, Hukali said she received messages from just about every staff member following Berkowitz’s order.

“Most of our staff are full time and only two of them have second jobs,” Hukali said. “Since the announcement, I have gotten texts daily asking for the updates about the diner, but sadly I don’t have any good news.”

After comparing gross revenue from March 18, 2019, and March 18, 2020, Hukali said there was a $6,000 difference for the diner.

“March is the month we look forward to because January and February are the slowest months of the year,” Hukali said. “I think the impact wouldn’t have been as devastating if we weren’t already trying to recover from slow winter months.”

The weekend before the closures, business at the diner dropped by more than 70 percent, Hukali says.

“It was scary but we were hopeful because there had only been one confirmed case in Anchorage at the time,” Hukali said. “I checked with a few friends who work at other restaurants and they were saying the same thing.”

While restaurants, bars and breweries are slated to open by early April, much is unclear.

“I think I can say that probably every bartender in town is really looking forward to serving those first drinks again and saying hi to everyone,” Daniels said.

“We generally really care about our regulars and that’s part of our family. Normally in crisis, we meet at the bars, and I think that’s what makes this so weird — 9/11 was crazy but we all had each other, and this is crazy and we don’t have each other.”

2 weeks of festivities to get you in the Fur Rondy spirit

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’Anyone for Tea? ’ by Team Turnbull at the Alaska State Snow Sculpture Championship during the Fur Rondy winter festival on Feb. 25, 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

This article was originally written for the Anchorage Daily News.

 

From reindeer sausage eating competitions to snowshoe softball, there’s something for everyone at the 85th Fur Rendezvous festival.

Fur Rondy has been going since the 1930s, but there are still plenty of new events this year — like the Blizzard Bash, which features a free concert from I Like Robots at Town Square Park (5:30 p.m. March 6) and the Poker Run (5 p.m. March 6). For a complete schedule, visit furrondy.net.

It’s safe to say costumes are almost always encouraged.

Ongoing
Alaska State Snow Sculpture Championship — Walk among towering snow sculptures and see artists hard at work on their masterpieces. Judging will happen at 10 a.m. Sunday, March 1, followed by awards at noon. Sculptures will be on display throughout the duration of Fur Rondy (you might want to check them out earlier rather than later — melting is always a risk factor). Ship Creek, 111 W. Ship Creek Ave.Rondy Carnival — If you can’t wait until the summer season for carnival rides and fair food, look no further. Funnel cakes, Ferris wheels and fishing frogs await downtown. Times vary. Third Avenue and E Street.

Melodrama: Jill and Red’s Bodacious Quest — The 30th annual Fur Rondy original melodrama musical follows the daughters of Bill and Ted, Jill and Red. The two of them must use their fathers’ time machine to travel through history and assemble a team of heroes to stop a villain from eliminating music from the world. $25-$35. Runs from Feb. 28 through March 14: 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 6 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays. 49th State Brewing Co., 717 W. Third Ave. (centertix.com)

Weekend 1: Feb. 28-March 1
Open World Championship Sled Dog Races — Sprint mushing teams will race against one another over three days of the same 25-mile route for a total of 75 miles. The course — lined with thousands of spectators — winds through forests, across major roads and back downtown. Starts from the corner of Fourth Avenue and D Street downtown. Starts at noon each day Friday-Sunday, Feb. 28-March 1.

Jim Beam Jam — Listen to Nashville artists Randy Houser and Kendall Marvel and celebrate the start of Fur Rondy. $40/person, $125/VIP. 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28. Williwaw, 609 F St.

Rondy Grand Parade — Anchorage’s largest parade kicks off Fur Rondy with a procession including Rondy royalty, nifty cars, roller girls and Rondy Bear. 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 29, Fifth and Sixth avenues.

Outhouse Races — Witness groups of costumed Alaska locals race down the road with decorated port-a-potties on skis. The world’s largest outhouse races are a humorous competition to find the king or queen of the porcelain throne. 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29. Fourth Avenue and E Street.
Snowshoe Softball Tournament — It is a lot harder than you would think. Watch competitors take on the silly challenge, or rally your friends and family for this sport with an Alaska twist. 8:45 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29 and Sunday, March 1. 16th Avenue and Cordova Street.

Frostbite Footrace and Costume Fun Run — Get your footie pajamas out for the 5K Frostbite Footrace or the 2.5K fun run. Awards presentation following the race at Glacier Brewhouse. $10/child, $150/team. 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 29. Fifth Avenue and F Street.

Minors and Nappers — Getting the little ones in the Rondy spirit by making trapper hats in Spark!Lab and panning for gold in Art Lab. Dress up like a sourdough in an old-time photo booth and design a Rondy-inspired pin at the trading booth. 1-4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29. Entry included in museum admission. Anchorage Museum, 625 C St.

Rondy DASH — In this scavenger hunt, teams of two to four people have 90 minutes to complete as many designated checkpoints as possible, which will be at downtown businesses and Fur Rondy events and exhibits. Whichever team gets back to home base — also known as Town Square Park — first is the winner. Prizes are awarded for the best costumes, and everyone who completes the scavenger hunt within the allotted time will be entered to win the grand prize of four round-trip tickets wherever Alaska Airlines flies. $30 per team for two; $45 for a team of three; $50 per team for four. 10 a.m. Sunday, March 1. Town Square Park, Sixth Avenue and E Street.

Rondy Ice Bowling — Whether you’re a beginner or an avid bowler, all bets are off when you’re playing on ice. $10. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29 and Sunday, March 1; Saturday, March 7 and Sunday, March 8. The Peanut Farm, 5227 Old Seward Highway.

Big Fat Ride — Join dozens of fellow fat-tire bikers on a beginner-friendly ride through Anchorage. The 5-mile loop will begin on Fourth Avenue and continue down the Coastal Trail to Westchester Lagoon. $20. 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29. Fourth Avenue, between F and E streets.

Fireworks Display — Enjoy some pyrotechnics while it’s still dark enough to fully appreciate the show. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28 in downtown Anchorage, facing Ship Creek and the Small Boat Harbor.

Weekend 2: March 6 – 8
Reindeer Sausage Eating Contest — Think you have what it takes to be crowned? Participants will have 10 minutes to devour as much reindeer sausage as physically possible. 9 p.m. Thursday, March 5. Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse, 610 W. Sixth Ave.

Fur Rondy/ASD Battles of School Spirit — Middle and high school teams compete in seven wacky games to earn spirit points for their respective schools. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday, March 6. Denali Elementary School, 952 Cordova St.

Poker Run — Bikers, skiers and runners alike can participate in this new Fur Rondy event. Participants will collect cards along one of three routes to create a poker hand by stopping at stations along the way. Those with the highest poker hand will be declared victorious. Bikers will begin at Tyson Elementary and end at 185 W. Ship Creek Ave. Skiers will travel westward on the Chester Creek Trail and finish at Ben Boeke Ice Arena while runners will go east to Davenport Fields, circle back and finish at Ben Boeke Ice Arena. Maps can be found at rondy.net. $10 for children (best hand for kids 12 and younger will be played as Go Fish). $25 for adults. 5 p.m. Friday, March 6. Ship Creek and Chester Creek.

Iditarod Ceremonial Start — From downtown Anchorage to the Campbell Creek Science Center, spectators can see the 58 mushers and sled dog teams in action before they head out to Willow for the official start of the nearly 1,000-mile race the following day. 10 a.m. Saturday, March 7. Fourth Avenue and D Street.

Running of the Reindeer — Like running with the bulls, but better. Running of the Reindeer is perhaps one of Fur Rondy’s most iconic events, where participants have the opportunity to run alongside these furry creatures. Runners will divide into one of four categories — guys, gals, groups and tourists — while raising money for Toys for Tots. $30. 4 p.m. Saturday, March 7. Fourth Avenue between H and D streets.

Miners and Trappers Goes Platinum — Celebrate the 70th anniversary of this Fur Rondy staple. Whether you’re a spectator who enjoys a scruffy face or someone with one, there is fun to be had all around. Categories include the “Mr. Fur Face Contest” and the Alaska State Championship Beard and Moustache Competition. $30. 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7. Egan Center, 555 W. Fifth Ave.

Wild Thing Competition — Contestants will participate in a pizza-eating contest, a costume contest and a call of the wild in hopes of finding the ultimate wild thing. 8 p.m. Friday, March 6. Flattop Pizza & Pool, 600 W. Sixth Ave.

Making it in L.A. is tough, but these screenwriters from Alaska are making it happen

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This article was originally written for the Anchorage Daily News.

 

Star-studded Netflix shows, award-winning actors and the always-sunny hills of Hollywood seem like a world away to Alaska, but some local talent is finding their place in the industry.

Kate Trefry, Ryan Welch and Ari Katcher — all former Anchorage residents — write for shows that appear on streaming platforms Netflix and Hulu. Trefry, who graduated from Dimond High, is a writer and story editor on “Stranger Things,” the most popular television show on the platform with over 64 million plays. Welch and Katcher created the Hulu original show, “Ramy,” along with comedian Ramy Youssef (who also stars), which recently picked up a Golden Globe for best lead actor in a comedy series.

The big break

Kate Trefry and her husband, Ben Bolea, a writer and screenwriter also from Anchorage, struggled for about eight years to make it in Los Angeles. Trefry had gained some traction for a script called “Pure O,” but still worked odd jobs like landscaping and bartending while pursuing writing.

“Out of nowhere, my manager calls me and asks me if I had seen the trailer for ‘Stranger Things,’ which I had, and I was really excited because the script I was working on was very tonally similar,” Trefry said.

At the time, Trefry and Bolea were in Big Lake, Alaska. The creators of “Stranger Things,” the Duffer brothers, wanted to interview her over Skype. She had previously had some “terrible conversations” with higher-ups in the industry; she braced herself for just that.

“I went skinny-dipping in (Big Lake) and I got out and put on pajamas or whatever, then went and had this Skype meeting with the Duffers,” Trefry said. “I didn’t think it was going to be good, so I was kind of a dick. They were great and they were asking me all these questions like, ‘What’s your process?’ And I was like, ‘There is no process, writing is a nightmare, Hollywood is a hellhole, there’s no point to any of this. But you guys did a good job, so what’s your process?’”

Five minutes after the call, her manager called her and told her she got the job and to fly back to Los Angeles the next day. A month after accepting the job, the first season came out.

“It blew up, and I definitely had a feeling like, ‘Oh no, there’s been a mistake, I shouldn’t be here — this is crazy,’” Trefry said.

Now, Trefry spends much of her time in the writing room, where work on Season 4 is underway. She doesn’t visit the set often, although one visit did lead to an appearance on the Netflix hit.

Trefry was shadowing the Duffer brothers one late night on set when they realized someone had forgotten to hire a stunt double to play a monster that attacks Bob Newby.

“Everybody was freaking out … They were like, ‘Oh my god, we need a small person, a little gymnast or something,’” Trefry said. “And I was like, ‘I am not a gymnast, but I’ll do it.’”

With that, the head of special effects suited Trefry up and she made her acting debut in the Season 2 episode, “The Mind Flayer.”

Stand-up guys

Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch met when they were 16; Katcher graduated from West High School and Welch attended Service. They went to Portland State University together before Katcher moved to L.A. to pursue stand-up.

After convincing Welch to move to L.A., the two crashed together and oftentimes brainstormed scripts, pilots and scene ideas for their next project. Katcher reconnected with Youssef, who he met through the stand-up scene while temporarily living in New York, and the idea for a show emerged.

“Ramy” is the story of a first-generation American Muslim navigating his faith and lifestyle. When digging in with Youssef, they asked him what he could write that nobody else could. The more they pried, the more he would say things that “maybe he hadn’t even said to anyone.”

“It was really just conversations,” Welch said. “We would walk around L.A., I would ask (Ramy) questions about his life and it was pretty clear that he had some pretty funny experiences that were awkward and dark and about trying to balance being religious and being a millennial. There was a lot of material in there.”

The show has gotten notice for exploring that kind of unfamiliar ground. The New York Times writes that “Ramy” is a “complex, funny series about messy and specifically drawn people. Its characters are not, to use the cliché, ‘just like us,’ because this is a show that realizes no one is just like anyone else.”

From their experience being around comedians so often, Katcher and Welch said they knew how to push.

“That was always something that really excited both of us a lot, was getting to that really uncomfortable place, because that’s where we find a lot of our favorite things,” Katcher said.

In addition to their Hulu original, Katcher and Welch wrapped their first film, “On the Count of Three,” featuring Tiffany Haddish, Henry Winkler and Jerrod Carmichael.

“Ramy” has been picked up by Hulu for a second season, which is set to release at the end of May.

Drawing Attention: Spotlighting Violence Against Indigenous Women

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This article was originally written for Rasmuson Foundation.

 

Amber Webb grew up in Dillingham and remembers Alaska Native women disappearing, often without explanation or justice. These experiences stuck with her and ultimately inspired her to create a giant qaspeq — a traditional Native hooded garment — illustrated with hundreds of hand-drawn portraits of missing and murdered indigenous women in Alaska and the Lower 48.

Webb’s qaspeq is over 10 feet tall, and its creation has been a very personal project for the Yup’ik artist. Webb illustrated each woman using Sharpie pens, taking an average of three hours to draw each one. The artwork brings light to the violent toll brought upon indigenous women.

“I felt like I couldn’t do anything,” Webb said. “It was partially an emotional response and partially ‘This is what I can do, so this is what I’m going to do.’”

Growing up, nobody in Webb’s family was creating art, but it was something she came across later down the road. She always had an interest in portraiture, and as the years went on, she became more drawn to Yup’ik art.

According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, over 5,700 Alaska Native and Native American women and girls were reported missing as of 2016, but the U.S. Department of Justice only documented 116 of those cases. Initially, Webb wanted to illustrate 396 portraits on the qaspeq, but as time went on, the project changed. By fall 2019, Webb had drawn nearly 200 portraits and is shooting for 300.

“I didn’t really anticipate emotionally how challenging it would be to do that many portraits and read that many stories in a short time,” Webb said.

She finds the women mainly through the Sovereign Bodies Institute, but family members have reached out and shared their stories with Webb personally, too. Webb also learns about missing women through social media and asks their families if she can incorporate their photos into the qaspeq.

“It really is the kind of project where you have a conversation with somebody about their relatives and they’re sharing something painful with you and then you stay connected with people after that,” Webb said. “I didn’t anticipate that — how large the reach would be and how many people are doing really good work that I would be able to meet.”

And while the project was supposed to be completed in May, it’s been an ongoing endeavor for Webb.

“It’s actually kind of good that it’s not finished because as I’m meeting people, they’re giving me names of relatives and I’m able to include them in the process of touring it,” Webb said. “And also, there have been a couple of people that went missing in places and their posters were up while it was traveling, and then I was able to put them in the project.”

Webb has exhibited the qaspeq in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Dillingham and Utqiaġvik and plans to display it in Bethel and Nome. She’s broadened her reach outside of Alaska, too, taking her art-as-message to Nebraska, Florida, North Dakota and Iowa.

Her work has not gone unnoticed. When the band Portugal. The Man performed their homecoming show at the Alaska Airlines Center in 2018, Webb shared the stage to speak about a prototype of her qaspeq. The Anchorage Museum purchased the prototype.

Since then, her local tribal and regional corporations have awarded her their Citizen of the Year awards, AFN awarded her its Warrior of Light Award, and she presented the qaspeq to the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

She also took the qaspeq to the Alaska State Capitol and presented it to Alaska House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs. Webb was there to hear House Resolution 10, which urged the United States Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 without an exemption for tribal governments in Alaska. In addition, the resolution supported Savanna’s Act, which aims to reform law enforcement and justice protocols regarding missing and murdered Native women, and to highlight the crisis.

“That was really, really remarkable … they put it right on top of the portrait of founding fathers — like, over them, which was kind of cool,” Webb said. “They covered them with these portraits of these Native women, which was really an interesting thing to see.”

The funding provided by Webb’s Individual Artist Award was a “jumping-off point” to a myriad of other opportunities and connections, like her appearances with the qaspeq outside of the state.

Webb says the stories she’s heard and incorporated into her work have stayed with her. “I carry that as much as the project does,” Webb said. “Reading that many accounts of extreme violence and disregard and just being really aware of how huge this issue is and how it’s tied into all the systems we interact with — it’s so tangled in that.”

Webb says she’s realizing more and more that systemic influences allow the violence and apathy, and they need to be faced first.

“I’m trying to take [the qaspeq] to D.C., and I want to say, ‘The United States government needs to acknowledge what this is that’s happening — and that it is a direct result of genocide,’” Webb said. “It makes you realize — we were at war with the government and they did take from us and they’re still taking from us, even if it’s an inconvenient thing to recognize.”

Veracruz by way of LA: Las Cafeteras blends Son Jarocho music with American pop

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Arts and culture

This article was originally written for the Anchorage Daily News.

 

Being a member of the band Las Cafeteras has taught Hector Flores an important lesson: people have more in common than they think.

Following the election of President Donald Trump, the Los Angeles-based band released “If I Was President” and asked people a simple but open-ended question — what would they do if they were in office.

The responses they received, whether they were from school children, fans at a show or people in line at the grocery store were a message of hope — making sure everyone had food, an education and ensuring bullying was never allowed.

“For us, we were asking working-class Americans, what would you do if you had the power to create change that would impact everybody positively — what would that look like?” Flores said. “For me, ‘If I Was President’ was trying to push into the world not what I don’t want, but what I do want. I think everybody is against things. We live in a very anti-culture… it’s very important to put what you’re for.”

Flores, along with Las Cafeteras’ five other band members — Leah Gallegos, Jose Cano, Denise Carlos, David Flores and Daniel French — are all children of immigrants. Since the band’s formation in 2005, some members met through college classes, while others met through their roles as political organizers.

Through a lot of campaign work, Flores said he and some of his fellow bandmates were burnt out — but music was an outlet to channel frustrations in a different way.

“We’re a band that’s not about being angry, we’re a band that’s about celebrating life and being grateful so we don’t get hateful,” Flores said.

The Chicano band is known for its eclectic blend of folk and spoken word with traditional Son Jarocho — the music style from Veracruz, Mexico — along with zapateado dancing and Afro-Mexican music. Traditional Son Jarocho instruments like the tarima, requinto and the quijada (a donkey jawbone) can be heard throughout their self-released albums, most recently in their 2017 release, “Tastes Like L.A.”

“Part of what we’re trying to do is show how we’re not that different, and show a variety of different styles that we grew up with that come from all over the world — Africa, Europe, Native American, Latin American — we all bleed, we all laugh, we all breathe the same air,” Flores said.

Growing up, Flores said he and his bandmates listened to oldies and wanted to create an EP of covers that reflected their influences. In 2019, Las Cafeteras released the first of four singles, “Angel Baby,” a reprise of the original 1960 hit by Rosie and the Originals.

“When people think of American they don’t always think of Mexican kids,” Flores said. “As Mexican kids, we wanted to pick a classic American song that we feel as connected to as anybody else.”

The Las Cafeteras’ cover of “Angel Baby” is sung in English and Spanish but still holds onto the classic feel of the original.

“We hear it differently — that doesn’t make it better or worse, it just makes it different,” Flores said. “Hopefully, you appreciate that — that we can sing this American song in a lot of different ways with indigenous instrumentation, in Spanglish, in English — that’s kind of what we want to do. We want to flip the script and allow people to hear classic songs in a new way.”

In February, the band will be releasing a cover of the James and Bobby Purify single, “I’m Your Puppet,” but with one small change. The majority of lyrics stay the same, but Las Cafeteras’ cover is titled “I’m Not Your Puppet.”

“We can love each other without being submissive to each other,” Flores said. “We can be in love without controlling one another. 2020 is a new day, there’s a new way to relate to one another … it doesn’t have to come with the power dynamics that have created a lot of violence and anger and control. We want to do it in a fun, light way.”

Women farmers are on the rise in the Last Frontier

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Martha Lojewski of Mount McKinley Peonies harvesting flowers during their peak season. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Peony Cooperative)
Martha

Martha Lojewski of Mount McKinley Peonies harvesting flowers during their peak season. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Peony Cooperative)

This article was originally written for the Modern Farmer.

 

In Alaska, where farmers battle grueling winters and short growing seasons, women are almost as likely as men to be planting seeds and pulling crops.

On average, 36 percent of farmers in the US are women, but in Alaska, women account for almost half—47 percent. National trends have seen women on the rise, too, with the percentage of male farmers dropping between 2012 and 2017. In Alaska, the number of women producers skyrocketed by 56 percent in that five-year period.

Farmers say there are a number of factors that contribute to this trend, including a rise in peony cultivation and the availability of grants for women farmers. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency reserves loan money for under-represented groups and beginning farmers.

For some reason, women are more likely to own small farms in Alaska, and small farms are booming in the state, says Suzan Benz, a state statistician for the USDA. In 2012, there were 247 farms that were nine acres or less in size; in 2017, the USDA found small farms accounted for 428 of Alaska’s farms. The USDA Agriculture Census found there are more female principal producers on Alaskan farms between one and nine acres in size: 284 women compared to 280 men. Principal producers make most decisions on a farm, and men account for more principal producers in every other acreage category in Alaska.

Emily Garrity, a farmer in Homer, owns Twitter Creek Gardens, a nine-acre operation; one and a half-acres is used to cultivate 50 vegetables and herbs. 

Garrity has noticed more women in farming, especially when looking for workers: About 90 percent of her applicants are women. 

“In my experience over the last 20 years of farming and being involved with farmers, there has always been a high percentage of females,” Garrity said. “I go to these [agriculture] conferences, both in the state and different workshops across the nation, and there are all of these young women in their 20s and 30s excited about [agriculture]—and they’re good at it.”

Observers point to Alaska’s “blooming” peony industry as a reason more women have entered farming. The state’s summer season allows the flowers to be harvested later in the summer than other competitive markets. In the 2000s, there were only a handful of farmers who grew these flowers, but that number has skyrocketed to at least 128 farms, according to Pat Holloway, a former University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulture professor who tracks the peony industry. 

Martha Lojewski started her farm, Mount McKinely Peonies, in 2014 after trying to find a job that was more accommodating for her young children. Their six-acre farm is in Willow, about 70 miles north of their home in Anchorage.

Lojewski and her husband launched a co-op a year later, Alaska Peony Cooperative, which now consists of 11 farmers—the majority of which are women- or family-owned.

Lojewski didn’t use loans or grants to start her farm, but she said women and minorities now have more options for funding and that those opportunities are likely contributing to an increase in women farmers.

“You can get a few more benefits being a minority farmer and a new farmer, so most of us set it up so the female is the primary owner of the business,” Lojewski said.

Amy Pettit also recognizes this trend. She is the executive director of the Alaska Farmland Trust, a non-profit dedicated to preserving farmlands, and moved to Alaska in 2005 to intern with the Alaska Division of Agriculture.

Not only does Pettit see more women farming in the state but more women in roles of agriculture leadership—like the head of Matanuska Experiment Farm, executive director of the Farm Bureau, president of the Food Policy Council, Alaska Farmers Market Associations and Pettit’s own position.

“I can remember many industry meetings where I felt largely outnumbered by the males in the room,” Pettit said. “It is very different today. The number of female farmers has increased significantly.”

What busking winters in downtown Anchorage taught KillBill Sax

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Saxophonist Bill Hauser performs at Tequila 61 on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)
Saxophonist Bill Hauser performs at Tequila 61 on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Saxophonist Bill Hauser performs at Tequila 61 on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

This article was originally written for the Anchorage Daily News.

 

It’s quite a sight to exit an Anchorage bar in February and see a saxophone player busking alongside two propane heaters at 1 o’clock in the morning. But for a year and a half, that was Bill Hauser’s hustle — known to Alaskans by his stage name KillBill Sax.

Hauser got the idea from another local sax player — Nelson Felix — who was busking downtown and had been doing so for years.

“Nelson was very gracious about another sax player setting up shop and even supportive,” Hauser said. “I ended up using the exact same propane heaters set-up that he had, after trying other methods that didn’t work. Sometimes he and I would perform together or across the street from one another, and he was really the inspiration for me giving it a go.”

And while KillBill doesn’t busk anymore, he regularly plays at a number of bars and restaurants in town. He teaches too.

“I am in a fortunate position at this point in time where I don’t have to [busk],” Hauser said. “I always need to make money, I always need to hustle, but I realized whatever you spend your time doing, that’s your life — in general.”

Hauser grew up in Anchorage’s small jazz scene. While most 19-year-olds were sneaking into bars for the booze, Hauser had other priorities — slipping into Blues Central for their Sunday night jam sessions.

“I would sneak in from the back door — I had like a full beard back then too,” Hauser said. “They didn’t card me. I was playing with the band. I didn’t cause any trouble or anything. Those are actually some of my best memories was coming home from college and playing with the Blues Central house band. That was kind of my first taste of learning how to play behind a singer and learn how to try and mimic a vocal run they might do.”

The Anchorage-based saxophonist discovered a love for the instrument in elementary school. Soon after graduating college, he got a gig as a member of the Platinum Soul Band with the Universoul Circus — a traveling circus that combines music, theater and circus acts. It was the biggest job he’d ever gotten. But Hauser doubted whether he would be as good as the other more experienced musicians, and the experience scared him off. Not soon after, he moved to New York City.

After putting his horn down for over a decade, Hauser needed an outlet and found a community in New York, performing in niche R&B venues in The Village.

“(Before) I was always afraid of being judged for not being good enough,” Hauser said. “Then I realized I didn’t care what people thought as much as I needed that outlet. It felt like more of an actual need to stay sane than it was about just enjoyment.”

The problem of living somewhere so fast-paced is that you aren’t afforded the luxury of figuring things out, Hauser says. He established a network in New York but needed to find a place to slow down. In 2015, he moved back to his home state.

“Everyone wants you ready-made out there,” Hauser said. “In fact, they want you ready-made in most places. This place is much more forgiving, for a whole bunch of other reasons. But those reasons aren’t important … there haven’t been any places that have treated me as well as my hometown. I really couldn’t think of a better place to come back and figure things out and reboot, rebrand.”

Hauser is currently working with Maple Struggle, an artist and producer from the United Kingdom, to produce his EP album, which will feature an assortment of instrumentalized covers. In the meantime, Hauser is performing at of establishments in town, including most recently the Whale’s Tail, Tequila 61 and Matanuska Brewing Company (a full schedule can be found at killbillsax.com).

You can listen to KillBill Sax live Saturday, Sept. 28 and Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. at The Whale’s Tail.

‘Umiak,’ ‘quesa-deer-a’ and fresh oysters: How Alaskans put their own spin on state fair food

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Food

salmon-express.jpg

This article was originally written for the Anchorage Daily News.

 

State fairs are typically known for the powder-sugared, fried classics like elephant ears, corn dogs and cheese curds. The Alaska State Fair has all those too, but there are also more than a handful of vendors selling items with an Alaska twist. Here’s what a few of them had to say during the first weekend of the fair in Palmer.

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Grilled halibut on rice at Fish On! Camp Grill at the Alaska State Fair, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Fish On! Camp Grill

It’s the sixth year Buffy Meyer has been operating the Fish On! Camp Grill at The Gathering Place.

Meyer, who is half Inupiaq, heard about the fair’s interest in opening a salmon bake booth at The Gathering Space several years back.

“I’m a fur designer (and) a sewer — so I was part of The Gathering Place before it was created here; (its previous location) was over by the Red Gate out of tents,” said Meyer.

Meyer and her sister, Esther Hershman, submitted a proposal. To their surprise, it was accepted. Meyer’s husband designed and built the current space, just off the Yellow Trail.

“We love cooking — we do all of the salmon, halibut, king crab — we do that all for ourselves subsistence-wise, so we knew how to cook it,” Meyer said.

Fish On!’s menu items include Alaska Native-inspired dishes like grilled halibut, salmon sliders, fry bread and reindeer stew. One dish called “umiak” (an Inupiaq boat) consists of jalapenos stuffed with a three-cheese blend, wrapped in a salmon fillet and wrapped with bacon. Meyer says the seafood comes from Norton Sound Seafood Products and Kwik’Pak Fisheries.

When they started out at the salmon bake, Meyer says, service was a bit slower but customers didn’t seem to mind.

“They had this cultural-rich area to watch, this stage, the performances, so it’s almost like they are able to sit here, be entertained and wait for their number to be called,” said Meyer.

Crab bisque and fries are are served from the Crab Shack at the Alaska State Fair on August 28, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Crab bisque and fries are served from the Crab Shack at the Alaska State Fair on August 28, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The Crab Shack

It all started when Katy Smith’s husband, Cade, had an idea to sell crab cakes at the Alaska State Fair. They made 500 crab cakes that year, which they thought was more than enough.

“They sold them out in the first three hours of the beginning day of the fair, and it’s just grown ever since,” Katy Smith said.

Over the last 20 years, The Crab Shack has turned into a staple of Alaska fair cuisine — from bacon-wrapped scallops to king crab bisque and their coconut crab cakes.

Smith said it’s important that their menu is filled with food sourced from within the state. Last year, the Smiths added french fries made from Vanderweele Farms’ Yukon Gold potatoes.

Cade is the owner of FishEx, a Alaska seafood company. “All of (my husband’s) seafood products, we try to bring out of Alaskan waters because this is us, this is Alaska,” said Katy.

“Nobody wants to eat seafood from somewhere else at the state fair.”

You can find The Crab Shack on the Purple Trail next to Hula Hoop Cookies.

Bushes Bunches

For over 30 years, Bushes Bunches has made its presence at the state fair known with brightly colored beets, an abundance of squash and crunchy carrots from the Palmer farm.

Kristi Short of Bushes Bunches says this is her third year helping out at the state fair. She and her boyfriend, Christopher Young, began helping Bruce Bush a few years ago.

Bushes Bunches was founded in 1956. In a state where the majority of food is shipped in, Short says she believes it’s important to support food supplies that are produced locally.

“It’s very important for the livelihood — not just for the farm itself but our community,” said Short.

Bushes Bunches Produce Booth is outside the Craig Taylor Equipment Farm Exhibits. In addition to fresh produce, they sell Alaska Grown beef stew and Bushes peanut potato — a cross between a Yukon Gold and fingerling potato, served with a smoky bacon dip.

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Salmon quesadillas on the grill at Salmon Express at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Salmon Express

Garrett Burtner, a retired commercial fisherman from Bristol Bay, says he and his wife, Judy, and their four sons have grown Salmon Express together since its debut at the fair 21 years ago.

“You get hooked on this — being a carny,” said Burtner. “It’s a family operation. I have my youngest son and his wife who are moving into the business and we’re moving out as we age.”

Burtner serves quesadillas filled with fresh grilled Alaska salmon, salsa, mozzarella cheese and guacamole. If seafood isn’t your style, try the “quesa-deer-a,” a reindeer sausage quesadilla with the fixings. Salmon Express is on the Red Trail.

Prince William Sound oysters from the Pristine Products oyster stand at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, August 2018. (Photo by Mara Severin)

Prince William Sound oysters from the Pristine Products oyster stand at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, August 2018. (Photo by Mara Severin)

More Alaska-style fair foods:

There are plenty more Alaska-centric delicacies to put on your fair food wish list.

The Red Beet features an assortment of sandwiches and sides with local meats and organic vegetables — sausage, pork, onion, tomatoes, potatoes, red cabbage, kale and more. They are just off the “beeten” path on the Red Trail. Farther along, Mr. Gyro serves their Alaska-grown potato wedges, and Pristine Products sells oysters fresh from Prince William Sound because it wouldn’t be a trip to the fair without a stop for shucking — would it?

Indian Valley Meats has a stand with spicy reindeer Polish dogs, buffalo bratwurst and caribou steak sandwiches. If you’ve got a hankering for halibut, delicious seafood pitas and deep-fried fish await at Seafood Alaska in log cabin No. 3, adjacent to the carnival rides. Yukon Concessions is also a good stop to get your fried halibut fix.

Just down the way at log cabin No. 5 is Lionel’s Seafood, where fairgoers can dig into seafood gumbo, chowder, clams and shrimp. At log cabin No. 6, the Patty Wagon serves Alaska-grown garden fries.

At the iconic Talkeetna Spinach Bread Airstream food truck on the Purple Trail, attendees can enjoy a blueberry-rhubarb crisp made from local fruits and veggies. Russian Eats, a new vendor this year, speaks to Alaska’s unique connection to Russian culture and cuisine with homemade piroshki and borscht.

Other vendors with Alaska-grown products, according to the Alaska State Fair website, are Friar Tucks, Red Bird Kitchen, Reuben Haus and Vagabond Blues.

Got a hot tip for an Alaska-style fair dish that we missed? Email dining@adn.com. The Alaska State Fair continues through Sept. 2 in Palmer. You can find a complete food guide at alaskastatefair.org.

Daredevils, funnel cake, bonsai: Scenes from the Alaska State Fair

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People

Grace Bacher

This article was originally written for the Anchorage Daily News.

 

Every August, hundreds of thousands of Alaskans make the trek to the state fair in Palmer to chow down, conquer rides and enjoy the last days of summer. Here’s what some of them had to say Sunday during the first weekend of the fair.

Amy and Erica Klementson

Amy and Erica Klementson prepare to be catapulted 50 feet into the air on the slingshot carnival ride at the Alaska State Fair, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Erica and Amy Klementson

The anticipation while you’re waiting in line for the fair’s slingshot ride can be almost as nerve-wracking as being catapulted into the air. While the ride shook and rattled and passengers screamed their lungs out, Amy and Erica Klementson waited. Amy kept her composure. Meanwhile, it seemed, Erica’s nerves were building. Their turn finally came; the ride operator pushed the button and shot the women 50 feet in the air, and their screams echoed across the rowdy fairground.

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Tom Robertson’s booth Alaska Chainsaw Carvings is where Robertson crafts furniture and decor at the Alaska State Fair, Aug. 25, 2019. (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Tom Robertson

While fairgoers filtered in and out of the Green Gate entrance, Tom Robertson was busy carving. His booth, Alaska Chainsaw Carvings — where he crafts furniture and decor — is right next to the slingshot.

Working on a bear sculpture, Robertson said he’s ridden the slingshot more times than he can count as a plus-one for fairgoers who couldn’t find a buddy daring enough to go with them.

Russell

Russell Summerville flies through the air at the King BMX Stunt Show at the Alaska State Fair Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Russell Summerville

From the slingshot to the King BMX Stunt Show, the Green Gate entrance never fails to intrigue daredevils and spectators alike. Russell Summerville flew through the air at the King BMX Stunt Show Sunday. King BMX riders have competed in the X Games and Gravity Games; in 2012, they competed on “America’s Got Talent’s” seventh season.

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Maria and Gabby Jones have a sundae funnel cake at the Alaska State Fair Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Maria and Gabby Jones

Maria Jones and her daughter Gabby, 5, took a break amid the rush of the Sunday fair crowd to enjoy a sundae funnel cake outside of the Eworx Don Sheldon Events Center. They weren’t the only spectators that had their faces painted — butterflies, kittens and skeletons of every age strolled by.

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Tim Pack trims a nanking flowering cherry tree at the Cook Inlet Bonsai Study Group display at the Alaska State Fair Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Tim Pack

Amid the hustle and bustle of farm animals and fairgoers, time slows down at the Cook Inlet Bonsai Study Group display, where Tim Pack, a club member, trimmed a Nanking flowering cherry tree Sunday. Members have been displaying their trees for more than 20 years at the Alaska State Fair.

The bonsai room is tucked away near the beekeeping area in the Craig Taylor Equipment Farm Exhibits. When fair time is over, the organization goes on digs to find material, either in the wilderness or on members’ properties around the state.

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Casey Mellott participates in a blanket toss at the Alaska State Fair Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Casey Mellott

In the middle of a rawhide blanket surrounded by dozens of participants, Casey Mellott was launched into the air at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics Blanket Toss. The blanket toss took place at The Gathering Place — an area dedicated to celebrating Alaska Native tradition that was first added to the fairgrounds in 2014, then expanded. Unalakleet’s “Eskimo Ninja” Nick Hanson — who competed on the TV show “American Ninja Warrior” in 2017 — led the event, as well as a “ninja warrior pro camp” where children and adults could attempt obstacles from the NBC hit.

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Alyssa London, the first Tlingit woman to represent Alaska at the Miss USA Pageant in 2017, spoke at the Dena’ People’s Stage at the Alaska State Fair Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Alyssa London

Alyssa London was the first Tlingit Miss Alaska at the Miss USA Pageant in 2017. She made headlines for her evening gown — a Tlingit robe with a design of a killer whale that represented London’s heritage. When taken off her shoulders, the robe transformed into an evening gown adorned with Swarovski crystals. London didn’t win the pageant, though she did make it into the top 10. London spoke at the Dena’ People’s Stage Sunday about her experiences in a national competition; although daunting, it made her proud to represent her heritage. London didn’t wear the dress at the fair; she wore a robe from artist Doe Stahr of Deer Creek Studio.

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Trent McFarland entertains attendees at the Alaska Tough Enough to Wear Pink Ram Rodeo at the Alaska State Fair Sunday, Aug. 27, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Trent McFarland

Across the Yellow Trail from The Gathering Place is the BP Grandstand, where the rafters were full of lively and rambunctious rodeo-goers, eager to cheer on their favorite cowboys and cowgirls at the Alaska Tough Enough to Wear Pink Ram Rodeo. Between barrel racing, team roping and bull riding, Trent McFarland kept attendees entertained by lassoing, dancing and stealing their phones and taking selfies. On Sept. 13 and 14 at the Sullivan Arena, Rodeo Alaska will be having a tribute event for first responders, where all proceeds will be donated to fire victims in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

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Grace Bacher, 7, tries not to have too much fun while on the carousel at the Alaska State Fair Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Grace Bacher

Grace Bacher, 7, tries not to have too much fun while on the carousel at the Alaska State Fair Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport).

The Alaska State Fair continues through Sept. 2 in Palmer. For a complete daily schedule, see alaskastatefair.org.

Alaska’s Trumpian Governor Just Threatened the Health of the Entire State

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News
Photo by Staff Sgt. Edward Eagerton/Wikimedia Commons.

This article was originally written for Vice.

Alaska is the largest state in the union, bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined. And it’s in trouble: The state has been grappling with a budget crisis triggered by a drop in oil prices four years ago, leading to a decrease in population, a recession, and Alaskan politicians dipping into the state’s savings. The governor, a right-wing ideologue who dismisses climate change, is further jeopardizing the state’s economy by attempting to deliver on his promise of giving every Alaskan a bigger annual check in the mail.

Michael Dunleavy won the governor’s seat in November by promising a restoration of the PFD—an annual check distributed to Alaskans from a fund based on oil revenues, which are vital to the state economy. (Some years, oil revenue has contributed to 90% of the total budget.) The fund, called the Alaska Permanent Fund, began in 1976 to provide residents with a share in the wealth of oil profits. The last governor, Bill Walker, dealt with the shortfall in oil revenues by capping PFDs in 2016, 2017 and 2018, resulting in about $3,700 less in every Alaskan’s pocket over those three years. During the campaign, Dunleavy repeatedly pledged to pay that back to Alaskans over the next three years, in addition to the annual PFD.

On Monday, he heavily marked up a budget passed by the state legislature to free up money for the PFD. But that comes at the expense of a number of social safety nets that serve some of the most isolated people in the country. The austerity-focused cuts, which Dunleavy first proposed in February, would also prompt immediate layoffs in Alaska, which employs many federal workers.

“Unlike during the oil-driven recession, all the people who will lose jobs (university employees, etc) are Alaska residents who own homes and spend money in the economy,” said Mouhcine Guettabi, a regional economist at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“Given the national market in academia, we will see a significant number of those affected leave the state, which will have consequences for housing prices.”

Dunleavy’s about-face is part of a larger push by other populist Republicans currently in power, as well as the Trump administration, to axe government-funded health and education programs that support low-income and isolated Americans to cut down deficits, even if they could have long-term human and financial cost. In just the past six months, the White House has announced plans to significantly curb funding for affordable housingMedicaid, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

And while none of this might be a total surprise but the fallout is shocking. Some of the items in Dunleavy’s cuts include $130 million from the University of Alaska system, $50 million from Medicaid (atop a $70 million cut already approved by the legislature and an additional $27 million in dental), and the elimination of a $30 million funding boost for K-12 schools. He has completely cut the Senior Benefits Program and the Alaska Council of the Arts. In several gubernatorial debates last year, Dunleavy said he would not cut public education spending or the court system. Yet both are included in the line items in his budget vetoes. He even slashed funds to the state ferry, which provides transportation to many of Alaska’s far-flung islands.

Medicaid, which 184,000 Alaskans rely on, was especially hit hard; adults on Medicaid will no longer receive full dental benefits, only emergency care. In a letter urging legislatures to override the veto, the Alaska Governor’s Council on Disabilities & Special Education wrote that cuts to Medicaid would be “devastating” for Alaskans with disabilities.

And the University of Alaska Fairbanks—where Dunleavy received his master’s in education—was also targeted. Guettabi said the $130 million veto to the University of Alaska budget alone would cut 1,300 jobs and return the state to a recession. “Once we account for the other cuts and their direct and indirect effects, the state will lose about 1,000 jobs for every $100 million of cuts,” he said.

This has wider implications for climate research. The university is home to the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, the primary academic research center for the Arctic in the U.S. And there could be a strong ideological influence here since Dunleavy’s opinions echo that the current administration: He dismissed the state’s Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team, which developed solutions for a rapidly changing climate.

“The issue of global warming, in many respects, it’s still being debated as to how to deal with it, what exactly is causing it,” Dunleavy told the Anchorage Daily News. “I know there’s a lot of folks and scientists who believe that man is contributing to this. But the question is, what is Alaska’s role in this? What is Alaska doing?”

Ironically, some of Dunleavy’s supporters rely on the funding he hopes to slash. The Kenai Peninsula Borough, which is home to nearly 60,000 people, could lose about 18% of its annual revenue thanks to the governor’s bill proposal to repeal oil and gas property taxes. The Peninsula voted strongly in favor of Dunleavy, by almost 70%.

These cuts were part of Dunleavy’s February budget proposal, which was catastrophically unpopular: In community meetings, residents were against it nearly five to one. Even though Dunleavy’s fellow Republicans controlled both the state house and senate, Alaska lawmakers approved a budget that reinstated many of the funds and programs that the governor had wanted to cut, and it did not fund a full PFD.

Apparently undaunted, Dunleavy hit the road in March to push his “Statewide Discussion for a Permanent Fiscal Plan,” a campaign promoting his budget cuts, organized and paid for by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group funded by the Koch Brothers. Residents grew increasingly frustrated about the governor’s roadshow, claiming that reservations were required and participants must comply with AFP’s conditions to attend, including a ban on recordings. After making the cuts, Dunleavy posted a video to Twitter explaining them,, saying, “These vetoes should not come as a surprise to Alaskans as they have been part of our proposal since February.”

Alaskans are putting up a fight; hundreds have protested on the Capitol steps in Juneau, and Alaskan band Portugal. The Man is hosting a rally against the governor’s vetoes Tuesday.

“The fundamental question is now squarely before Alaskans,” Bryce Edgmon, Speaker of the House, wrote in a statement. “What’s more important: a healthy economy, our schools, university, and seniors, or doubling the Permanent Fund Dividend at the expense of essential state services? The governor has made his choice clear.”