On the third floor of the court plaza building is Josephine Bahnke’s boat.
For the new head of the Alaska Division of Elections, it’s one of the few touches of her Nome home in her office.
“This was one of my going-away presents in Nome,” she said.
At this point, there’s one thing important to note: The boat, a trophy from the years spent developing the town’s port into an Arctic gateway, is only about a foot long.
She pointed to one side of the boat. “Staff had put my dad’s name on there, my dad’s nickname: ‘U.S.S. Stinky.’ Stinky was his nickname.”
Lloyd “Stinky” Hardy’s daughter, called Josie by friends, on Oct. 1 assumed control of a state agency facing — as many are — significant changes in the coming months.
When Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott named her the successor to longtime elections commissioner Gail Fenumiai in July, there was criticism from some corners. Critics said Bahnke was too inexperienced and unsuited to replace Fenumiai, who had monitored the state’s elections through the Murkowski write-in campaign, numerous controversial ballot initiatives and the sudden creation of the Unity Ticket, which saw an independent candidate elected Alaska governor for the first time.
Bahnke doesn’t hide her lack of elections experience.
“In my role as city manager, I wasn’t that involved with elections,” she said on Tuesday, the same day she oversaw the state’s rural education election.
But those who have worked with Bahnke said her experience can be misleading. Experience can be gained. It’s difficult to train intelligence.
“She’s very intelligent, and she’s very, very quick at learning new things,” said Tom Moran, Nome’s former city clerk and Bahnke’s replacement as manager. “I do realize that some people took umbrage at her lack of experience, but I think she’s absolutely up to the task.”
“You think about other departments, but elections are such a fundamental part of our democracy,” Bahnke said. “If it doesn’t run well or if it’s not run well, if it’s not effective or secure, that leads to a whole other host of problems.”
Atop the budget issues faced by other state agencies, Bahnke must implement a federally mandated voting rights settlement, negotiate an impending ballot initiative, prepare for the 2016 presidential election, upgrade the department’s computer systems and cope with the day-to-day personnel turnover and issues faced by all state departments.
“The lieutenant governor has said that he wants Alaska to have the best elections, so really, I think those are my marching orders,” Bahnke said.
Bahnke, who is married and has no children — she has a dog, a 13-year-old black lab — was born in Nome and raised mostly in Fairbanks.
She attended Fort Hays State University in Kansas, graduating in 1996, and worked as a staffer in the Alaska Legislature for Sen. Bert Sharp, R-Fairbanks. After Sharp retired in 1998, she was a staffer for Senate President Drue Pearce, R-Anchorage.
“Really, it was an opportunity for me to get my foot in the door at the capitol,” she said.
That time working with the Legislature marked her first experience with Juneau, and in an interview she recalled enjoyable times at Eaglecrest Ski Area and Perseverence Theatre, places she hopes to experience again.
In 1999, she started attending graduate school at Portland State University and worked with the Denali Commission, as well as Kawerak Inc., the regional Native nonprofit for Bring Straits Native Corp.
In 2004, she took a state job, working out of Nome for the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. In 2008, she left that job to become Nome’s city manager.
“For a local person, she’s been pretty good,” said Nome city councilman Louis Green Sr., who said he’s known Bahnke “since she was a kid.”
As Nome became the launchpad for the federal government’s Arctic efforts, Bahnke also wore the hat of the city port director. The federal government is preparing to spend millions to deepen Nome’s port as a way to further Arctic efforts, and until Joy Baker became the city’s full-time port director, Bahnke was the city person monitoring the effort.
“She is extremely driven, and she is very, very good at the political side of her job,” Moran said, explaining how Bahnke was able to lobby for millions of dollars in federal grants for Nome projects. “She has a lot of good connections in Juneau and Washington, D.C.”
Juneau is a big switch from Nome, said Bahnke, who is renting a house in Douglas — and yes, she has already switched her voter registration.
The little differences stand out the most: having a country music radio station, paying $7 for a Subway sandwich instead of $10 or $12, even the mail.
“We had a post office box in Nome. You had to go and get your mail,” she said. “And here, we have our own mailbox, with its own little flag, and we have a mailman who shows up every day. It’s like — this is so cool. That, to me, is just thrilling. It’s something that for most people, it’s normal. It’s my new normal.”
Bahnke said she was happy in Nome but felt she was ready for a new challenge.
“Had I not been asked to fill this position, I’d probably still be in Nome, in the same job,” she said.
When the Unity Ticket of Mallott and now-Gov. Bill Walker visited Nome on a campaign trip — it was their “first date” after forming the ticket, Bahnke remembers — she was enthusiastic about the new look. She reached out to let them know: “I love Nome, I love my job, but I would be honored if you saw fit to let me into the administration and work in Juneau.”
Asked about her lack of elections experience, Bahnke said she’s prepared to learn from staff already in place, and when it comes to state work, “it’s not my first rodeo.”
The Division of Elections has 28 full-time employees, but under the federal settlement of the Toyukuk v. Treadwell lawsuit, the state will be required to hire a 29th: A monitor to ensure the state is providing the Native-language translators and documents called for by the settlement.
In the coming months, Bahnke will attempt to recruit those translators, then return to the Legislature where she once worked to ask for money to pay for them. Bahnke may also make the case for new equipment and computer systems to replace the aging ones now used statewide.
“In the long run, if we’re not mindful of that, if we’re not educating the Legislature about those kind of things, you could be in a situation where the voters aren’t talking about the results of the election, they’re talking about how the voting equipment failed. That’s something we definitely want to avoid,” Bahnke said.