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Rep. C.J. McCormick reflects on 2023 and looks ahead to the new year

cj mccormick
Sage Smiley
Rep. C.J. McCormick.

Rep. Conrad “C.J.” McCormick represents the Lower Kuskokwim communities in State House District 38, including Akiachak, Akiak, Atmautluak, Bethel, Chefornak, Chevak, Eek, Kasigluk, Kipnuk, Kongiganak, Kwethluk, Kwigillingok, Mekoryuk, Napakiak, Napaskiak, Newtok, Nightmute, Nunapitchuk, Oscarville, Quinhagak, Toksook Bay, Tuluksak, Tuntutuliak, and Tununak.

He sat down with KYUK’s Sage Smiley to talk about the highs and lows of 2023, and what he’s looking forward to in the coming legislative session, scheduled to begin Jan. 16, 2024.

Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

KYUK (Sage Smiley): Thank you so much for joining me today. We're really excited to do a year-end wrap-up with you, Rep. McCormick.

Rep. C.J. McCormick: Thanks for having me, it's always an honor to be here at the entertainment capital of Bethel and the Y-K Delta. So the privilege is all mine for sure to be here.

KYUK: So first of all, looking back at 2023 as a legislator, in a few words, is there a way you could sum it up? Was it a simple enough year that there's some, ‘This was 2023’ wrap-up you could give us?

McCormick: That's difficult to answer. Because on one hand, I want to talk about the things that we worked on and talk about the camaraderie. But also, I almost want to answer that from the perspective of just, ‘It was a challenge. And I learned a lot.’ That's kind of personally where I would come from. It's difficult to try to convey all this stuff we worked on because it was a blazingly fast five months where we got a lot of stuff done.

KYUK: So tell me a bit about that, then: highlights. You alluded to these accomplishments, you alluded to a lot of growth. What were the highlights of the 2023 legislative session, or 2023 more broadly, for you?

McCormick: I think the thing that I always enjoyed the most out of this job is being able to meet with constituents who were kind enough to come visit me in Juneau, but also just meeting with a lot of young people who came to the capitol. Being the youngest representative, it's always really cool to kind of surprise people, like, ‘Hey, I'm closer to your age than I am with a lot of my colleagues.’ No disrespect to them, but I just think that was probably the best part of it. I'm trying to think of legislation we passed, but I think just the most joy that I got from this job was just meeting with people and seeing all the different stuff that people were working on in the state. And just, it’s super inspiring, meeting people all across Alaska. We've got the biggest state, and there's a lot of people doing a lot of stuff. And that's really cool to see that.

KYUK: Flipside question: frustrations. Were there points where it was just agonizing to be a part of the legislature?

McCormick: Yeah, definitely. And I'm really thankful for the summer because I've been able to put a lot of that behind me. And I definitely know when I left, it was a different feeling than I'm going into it now. And so there were definitely some growing pains. There was stuff that I think at the time, you know, you make a mistake and it seems like the world ends, but then after the fact, you're back in Bethel in July on the river, and none of that is even on your mind. So I think there was just a lot of tough lessons that I had to learn. But it's kind of behind me now.

KYUK: Could you take us back and tell us about one of those maybe?

McCormick: I think organization was difficult. There was a lot of uncertainty there. Never really being in a dynamic like that, I didn't realize kind of how things would unfold after the fact. And I think if I knew what was going to happen, I wouldn't have freaked out about it so hard. But that was a really difficult decision, I think, for me: deciding to join the majority. But I think in the end, it was the right choice, and it was the best thing for our district. So yeah, that was difficult. But like I said, in the long run, it’s just behind me.

KYUK: Do you have a most memorable moment from this legislative session?

McCormick: Not necessarily. There's a couple of highlights. I'll just share one of my favorites was being in the Education Committee, and when [Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Principal] Josh Gill came, I just felt so proud. It felt like it was introducing somebody I'd known my whole life to these super high-ranking, important people. And just having that moment to have someone from home come there and show everybody how cool he was, that was really awesome. So I really liked doing that. And also, at one point, it might even have been in the same committee, the former dean of students at Bethel Regional High School, Billy Strickland, and he was there and I got to kind of tease him. So I really liked doing that. I really enjoyed those moments that happened throughout the session. That was really fun.

KYUK: So you spoke to learning a lot. Do you feel like there is a lesson, or a couple of lessons, or ideas, or any other sort of thing – a takeaway, basically – that you're coming away with or that you're bringing into this, this next, as the legislature returns to Juneau?

McCormick: I think the biggest thing that I learned coming into this realm was the cooperation, and I think the willingness for people to work together. I kind of always had the perspective of what you see on the national news on the federal level, which seems very contentious, and I mean, I won't beat around the bush. There are times where things do get pretty passionate, but I think really just we're all there. We're all really good people. We all have great, different personalities. And I've just learned so much about how, despite our differences there, we just want to do what's best for the state and I think it took me being in the legislature to really see that firsthand. So I think that's one of the biggest takeaways and something that I'm really looking forward to going into this next session. It makes me feel empowered to get things done that I think our state really needs.

KYUK: So what sorts of things do you think the state really needs?

REP. McCORMICK: Well, I think one of the principal issues, especially for our district, is just adequate education funding. I think there's a lot of major maintenance needs, and the way that the state currently is kind of set up to get those things paid for I don't think is really adequate for the realities of our district. We have schools operating in emergency situations that have to put their name on a list and wait to get that funding. And that's just not really germane to our tradition, our living conditions right now. And I think the same can be said, or that same thing can be extended to public safety buildings and things like that. There are a lot of really unacceptable conditions that our communities have to endure, because they have to wait on a list to get that funding. And I really wish there was something we could do to just kind of really make that system more just germane to our lived experience.

KYUK: do you have a specific idea for the way you would restructure that allocation of state funding?

McCormick: I have an idea, but I always kind of have to take a step back because everybody has great ideas. And then you go into the legislature and realize there's all these different little things in boxes you have to check. But I think what I would really like to see is just some sort of, I think, a dedicated fund, separate from the rest of the state, particularly for rural communities because our costs are so much higher and our needs are pressing. And that's not to say that the rest of the state doesn't need funding, because they certainly do. It's just really hard to be a representative, and sit in Juneau, and see what some of our communities have to deal with. So I think that would be a good solution is just to have that that separate.

KYUK: Returning to education funding, both with [Department of Education and Early Development Capital Improvement Project], major maintenance stuff. But then also with, I think you kind of insinuated, the base student allocation (BSA) or funding, do you have a number that you're going into this session with that you're hoping that the BSA gets raised, or that there's another one-time increase to funding?

McCormick: You know, that's difficult to say. I was a fan of the original proposal that was brought through the house. If I remember correctly, I think it was $1,200. I understand that's inadequate from speaking to some of our school districts here. That's inadequate, but I think that's closer to what we need. I think just unfortunately, with how controversial that issue is, we kind of just have to take what we can get at this point. So I would prefer it being higher than the $1,200 proposal that was amended down to $650 to be more palatable to some other folks. And if that's what we can get, we'll take it. But I really think that it's imperative that it be a permanent increase; I don't think a one-time increase is adequate. However, if we get to May and that's all that we can get, we need it. So I don't have a number in mind, but $1,200 or higher, I think, is critical. And that's another thing too, that I think just kind of alluding back to these funding mechanisms not really being helpful for our district. I think that would be something interesting to look at too, is if there would be a way that we could provide a or have a different funding mechanism for rural school districts, because our cost of fuel are so much higher and we have to deal with so much more.

KYUK: So you're mentioning all of these rural-specific or rural-heightened issues for constituents. And you also mentioned earlier in the interview how you love seeing constituents, whether that's here, whether that's in Juneau. Are there repeated themes in what you hear from constituents? Main points that, again, as we're sort of looking back at the year, looking forward at the next year, that you're looking at?

McCormick: Yeah, I think public safety is a really huge thing. The issue of Missing Murdered Indigenous Women is a rampant issue across the state, but I think it's really amplified here, given the tight-knit nature of our communities and the disproportionate amount of people who go missing in our district. But yeah, just public safety overall, I think it is a major issue for a lot of communities. While this isn't the case in every community, I think water infrastructure is really critical too. I've heard from a lot of school districts having to cancel school because they don't have adequate water infrastructure. And I share this with other members of the Bush Caucus too: there's an urgency right now because there's federal funds available. And currently, with our scoring system, it's kind of holding those funds up to get to these communities that we desperately need. So that's not to say every community that I represent is struggling with that. Toksook Bay has a phenomenal [Rural Utility Business Advisor] score. And so I'm sure that's not something they're thinking about, but that does come up in a lot of communities. And I would say the other thing too is housing. That seems to be a really critical and common issue. To summarize, I think infrastructure in general, just aging infrastructure, is a really important thing that I keep hearing about.

KYUK: So as you look at the legislative session, how do you make that workable? How do you start to address or bring up those sorts of issues within the context of this bureaucracy of the legislature?

McCormick: Well, what I'm really encouraged by, and this is kind of going back to the cooperation, I'm chair of [the House] Community and Regional Affairs [Committee]. And so that gives me the authority to really make any those committee meetings about what I want to. And so I've been able to, at the end of the last session, every session was just talking about the water infrastructure issue. And it's super, super encouraging, and kind of surprising, but I guess it shouldn't have been surprising from the beginning. Everyone is supportive of it and solving that problem. And so I think it's critical for me to really utilize the chairmanship that I have in CRNA to address those issues. And I've, I feel like I've done that, but there's always so much more work to do and never enough.

KYUK: Definitely, it seems like what you can chip away at is just really the tip of the iceberg. And then there's so much else always that gets pushed from session to session, oftentimes. Are you planning on pre-filing any bills?

McCormick: I have, I've pre-filed two. And those are both related to Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. So one would be to ensure the state of Alaska sharing their missing persons data with the NamUs database. And the other one has to do with cultural training and ensuring that our police departments have the tools they need to be able to adequately serve our communities. So those are two I have filed. And I also have a resolution, which you can’t pre-file but we've worked on it, and that'll be regarding boarding schools, and that'll probably be something that I bring up in Tribal Affairs.

KYUK: So beyond pre-files, as you're looking back on last year, as you're looking forward to next year and the new legislative session and you're synthesizing all this info from other legislators from constituents, what are you taking away? And what are you looking forward to? What are you keeping in mind? What's top of mind as you move into this new year and new session?

McCormick: Well, I think just finishing the work that we started trying to solve the water issue, or just getting, at least kind of breaking the gate on that. I think that's super critical. For me, I think passing meaningful legislation to address the salmon crisis is super important. Myself and Rep. [Mike] Cronk released a bill towards the end of session that would essentially close down Area M for a month. And so I think just continuing that is super critical. I was at the public hearing with Sen. [Lisa] Murkowski, and it's clear that's top of mind for everyone. And so I think finishing the job on that is critical, but just continuing to improve public safety. But it's like I said, I've been really pleasantly surprised. I think everybody is really tuned in to getting these things done. And we're all in agreement that we need to do it.

KYUK: Is there anything we haven't touched on that you would want to, from your position as a legislator, as we're doing this sort of year-end wrap-up looking forward to 2024-type interview?

McCormick: I would just like to put in a plug for people to reach out to the office. My staff has done a phenomenal job, I think, of helping a lot of people. And so if there is ever anything that you feel like you need help with – we just experienced that SNAP crisis – things of that sort. If there's anything you need help with, like always, never hesitate to give us a call. I think a lot of folks will be surprised how much we can actually help with, and we've been really good at that. Just reach out to us. Let us know what you're thinking about. I guess another thing that I will plug, too, is I am having an event on [Jan. 3] at the VFW. There will be food. I'm just going to give a brief update on some of the things we worked on. But more importantly, there's just an opportunity for people to come and just ask questions and tell me how good of a job I'm doing or not.

KYUK: I appreciate your time. And happy new year! Thank you so much for coming in.

McCormick: Thanks for having me. This was really cool.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.