Out of the Office: Juneau

It was kind of happenstance that I spent the last month living and working in Juneau.

I’d heard of the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism’s Legislative Reporter Exchange Program before — KDLL 91.9 FM’s Riley Board participated last year. I missed this year’s deadline, though. By, like, a month. I’d mostly put it out of my head when I was contacted in mid-January with news that a reporter who’d previously committed to the program was backing out.

By the end of the month, I’d bought a plane ticket and applied for press credentials with the Alaska Legislature. With housing secured through ACEJ, the promise of editorial guidance by Alaska journalism titan Larry Persily and a list of story ideas, I was excited to get started.

I arrived in Juneau in mid-February and returned to Soldotna last Friday. For all four weeks, I felt a bit like Cillian Murphy in the first act of “Oppenheimer,” when he lies in bed and sees the physics of quantum mechanics visually suspended in the space above him.

Certainly, Alaska’s legislative process is not as complex as physics, but what became extremely clear to me while working from the Capitol were the threads that connect the abstract concepts being debated to the tangible issues affecting Kenai Peninsula residents some 600 miles away.

While listening to the Senate Finance Committee debate the merits of the long-proposed east side setnet fishery permit buy-back program, I was transported back to Brother’s Cafe in Kenai, where I interviewed commercial fishers last spring about closures and the impact a buyback program would have on their family operation.

While crafting a feature about how Bud Sexton, Rep. Justin Ruffridge’s chief of staff, helps write laws, I flashed back to the first time I interviewed Sexton — smack-dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic when he was still a Kenai Peninsula Borough employee and helping coordinate vaccine clinics.

While listening to teachers, school staff, students and parents give passionate testimony about the need for more state funding for schools, three-plus years’ worth of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District interviews, school visits and board meetings weighed on my mind while assembling stories.

It also helped that there were so many familiar faces around the building. Overlapping with my own sojourn were visits from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, the City of Soldotna and the City of Seward delegations, all of whom were there advocating for local priorities that I’ve written about before.

Bringing a level of familiarity with the needs and wants of the Kenai Peninsula’s tapestry of personalities made my time in Juneau more rewarding than I could have imagined. There is a lot going on in the Capitol at any given moment. I was fortunate to be narrowly focused on the peninsula delegation, which often felt like pulling topics back from the edge of abstraction and trying to root them in reality.

I originally moved to Alaska with the goal of covering the Legislature (which I’d been doing for a newspaper in college in Missouri), but my top job prospect fell through amid the hubbub of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a bit of a full-circle moment for me, then, to have such an uplifting opportunity for professional growth in a place I once believed held my future.

Juneau’s great, but I’m thankful to be back in Soldotna. It’s also kind of happenstance that I ended up in Soldotna and look how that turned out. I’m thankful to have ended up here.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.