One could attach an easy narrative to someone who finds himself in state legislature at the age of 23: an earnest young politician, a lifelong dream fulfilled against all odds. That doesn’t quite fit Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, state representative for Alaska’s Southeast district. At 23, he’s certainly young, and while his 32-vote recount victory made for a photo finish, he only decided to run for the statehouse on June 1st of last year, the last day to register one’s candidacy. But don’t take that to mean he doesn’t love his job. WEEKEND had the chance to chat with Kreiss-Tomkins about partisanship, Alaskan patriotism and whether Yalies really know politics as well as we think we do (hint: we don’t). Kreiss-Tomkins spoke to all of this and more, despite answering questions while going for what sounded like a fairly strenuous jog along a coastal running trail. As if we didn’t feel lazy before …
Q. How long have you wanted to be in Alaskan politics?
A. Since June 1st, 2012, the day I registered to run for office. I was planning on being in Washington, D.C., not Alaska, and certainly not running for Alaska legislature, when I walked across the stage at commencement last year.
Q. What inspired you?
A. It’s a way to make the world a better place, is the simple answer, and the idealistic answer, and I’m an idealist. Even having now spent 45 days in the legislature, having witnessed and participated in the sausage making, I’m still an idealist. Sometimes it’s making the world a better place in a very small way, or making a very small part of the world a better place, but it’s a tremendous platform to affect people’s lives for the better.
Q. Some call Yale “the cradle of presidents.” Do you think your Yale education prepared you for politics? Better than, say, a Harvard education would have?
A. I’ve thought about this question quite a bit. Yale has an incredible concentration of complex and interesting people, and politics is all about people. It’s the craft of people; it’s applied sociology, applied anthropology. Being surrounded by interesting and complex and talented people is perhaps the best preparation for the profession of people. I was consistently challenged by the people I met at Yale, in ways both good and bad, and I couldn’t think of a better way to prepare for a job where I am surrounded on a daily basis by ambitious, bright and scheming politicians.
Harvard would be a great preparation for a Republican politician. I’m joking, I’m joking, but more seriously, the genuine difference between Harvard and Yale, from what I’ve seen, is that people at Yale are driven by the right reasons, and that’s the most powerful kind of motivation.
Q. Alaska is pretty unique from any other state. How are its politics different, and how does its character shape its politics?
A. Alaska is definitely unique. People are patriotic here, I mean, people in Texas think they’re proud of Texas, but it’s nothing compared to Alaska. I knew the words to the Alaska flag song before I probably knew the national anthem, because my elementary school music teacher taught us all the Alaska flag song when we were in second grade. People here love the state: They love the land, they love the people, and I think that affects the politics. There’s a collegiality in Alaska politics that, in a lot of ways, makes us less partisan than the California legislature, or the Connecticut legislature. I can’t even count how many conversations I’ve had with Republican legislators where we’re talking about what a beautiful thing it is that we’re in the legislature as Alaskans before we’re there as Democrats or Republicans. It’s a patriotism that shuns partisanship.
Q. Even despite the collegiatlity, I imagine that waiting for election results must be pretty tense. What’s it actually like waiting for results, especially in an election as closely contested as yours was?
A. I’ve given this answer once before in another interview, but I think this is the best I’m ever going to come up with. It was a little bit like being an athlete in the Olympics and the event was tape-delayed. But despite being a competitor, I didn’t know the results while waiting for the tape delay to catch up. The votes were in, I was one of the candidates, victory or loss was in the ballots, yet I didn’t know. It was like some tortuous, suspended reality.
Q. A lot of Yalies are interested in politics, but many head south to D.C. or stay on the East Coast, which you thought you would be doing up until the last minute. So why did you go back to Alaska?
A. Because I love Alaska! I went back because there was an opportunity to run for office, and it was a good opportunity. If there are two equal opportunities, one in New York City, one in Sitka or anywhere in Alaska, that wouldn’t even be a decision. I would be in Alaska in a heartbeat. I hadn’t found that compelling opportunity in Alaska prior to graduation, but it presented itself literally the day after commencement and I jumped on it.
Q. What politicians do you look up to, and why?
A. Jay Hammond, the former governor of Alaska. In fact, I just co-sponsored a bill that would establish Jay Hammond Day in Alaska. He’s a Republican who was governor from 1974 to 1982. He was known as the “Bush Rat Governor:” he was a pilot, he was a hunter, a guide, he lived in a cabin on Lake Clark, and he was all about what was best for Alaska. He was an independent thinker, and just a good person. Being a good person makes you a good politician, and I admire that in anybody, be they a Democrat or a Republican.
Q. What would you tell Yalies interested in politics?
A. Man, that’s hard. To me, politics should be about caring for people and communities. So, if you don’t already have a community you love, find one. I mean, that’s just for people who want to run for elected office. If you want to do policy work, that’s more abstract. You can go to D.C. or New York and do that, power be with you. But for people who want to run for elected office: Find a community that you genuinely love. That’s really important. Democracy hinges on representation, and if you don’t have a passion for those you’re representing, that is a fatal flaw in your motivation.
Q. We tend to think, at Yale, that our political discourse is pretty insightful, pretty enlightened. We have a high opinion of our own thoughts. Do we have any idea what we’re talking about?
A. Sometimes. There’s terrific exposure to ideas at Yale. Our classmates, our professors, everybody has ideas. There’s never a drought of discourse. But, you know, despite Yale’s push for a more diverse student body, Yale is a pretty homogenous place. What I’m trying to say is that I knocked on every door in dozens of different communities in Alaska throughout the election, in Wendell, and Petersburg and Sitka, and I met every single person that lived in the community, and literally saw the full bandwidth of what a person’s life in that community could be.
At Yale, we have great exposure to ideas, but we’ll always have limited exposure to the people who are affected by the ideas that we debate. Going door to door in a trailer park or a wealthy new subdivision and everything in between, it’s a terrific human education that I didn’t get at Yale. Nor does Yale necessarily pretend that it gives that education.
Q. So, little has been left unsaid about the mess of partisan politics in Washington. Do you feel the same way about state politics in Alaska or in general?
A. Juneau, our state capital, is different than Washington in myriad ways. First among them is that Juneau functions, and Washington D.C. “dysfunctions,” if you’ll permit me to turn that into a verb. So, yeah, the legislative process is alive and well and fully functional in Alaska. Of course there’s always room for improvement, and I have my share of qualms about it, but it is nothing like D.C., and part of that comes from the fact that Alaska might as well be an island. There’s a “we’re all in it together” kind of mentality, a social phenomenon that you’d find with any people on an island. If you say something unfair and mean about somebody, you can’t hide from that person because you’re on the same island you’re going to run into him or her again.
In the last month, both of our U.S. senators have come to our capital to address our state legislators. So, Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, they come, and they give us a 30-40 minute address. Alaska is the only legislature in the nation where our U.S. senators come back to the state legislature and talk about issues that affect Alaska. And they will both say that D.C. is a mess by comparison, and I know people on staff for both senators, who will make the same observations. But you look at a state like California, and from what I know of the California legislature, it’s arguably more dysfunctional than the Congress or the U.S. Senate. State legislatures are not the exclusive province of political functionality. It all depends on the state, and we’re lucky that in Alaska, things are still working.