Today is the filing deadline for potential candidates who hope to replace Zach Fansler as House District 38's State Representative. Fansler resigned after being accused of domestic violence related to alcohol.
KYUK has been interviewing Bethel residents who know Fansler and asking whether they ever suspected that there might be trouble ahead for him. Whoever takes his place may face closer scrutiny than usual.
In a community that struggles with alcohol and domestic violence, Bethel residents expressed shock that their own legislator was forced to resign following assault allegations. Most people were surprised by the reported assault, and Fansler’s attorney has strongly denied the allegations. But when it came to Fansler's alleged drinking, several people who knew him said that they were not surprised, and at least two of Fansler’s former employers suspected that he drank more than he should.
Myron Angstman, who worked with Fansler when he managed the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race, said that Fansler could be hard to reach. Sometimes he just didn’t show up where he was supposed to be. “The fact that he had a little too much to drink," said Angstman, "is not a significant surprise to me.”
Mary Pete is the Director of UAF's Kuskokwim University Campus where Fansler worked as an instructor. She said that she had heard, but not actually seen, more or less the same thing.
"I did hear that he’d shown up in meetings late or didn't come to meetings," she said. "There was evidence of being ill-prepared or having been somewhere he shouldn't [have]. But not for me," Pete added, noting that Fansler was in many ways a dedicated employee. "I never saw that side of him."
When KYUK hosted a live debate for the district’s primary in 2016, several residents requested that we ask Fansler about his drinking habits, but Fansler’s alcohol use didn’t make the Alaska Democrats’ radar when the party vetted him as a candidate. Alaska Democrats’ Communications Director Alice Kim said that the party screens potential candidates by going through publicly available records and that aside from two drinking-related misdemeanors from partying in his twenties, Fansler’s record is pretty clean. Beyond that vetting, Kim said, the Democrats defer to local voters.
"It’s kind of a trust thing, right?" said Kim. "If they just decide not to disclose some personal information and the community decides to elect that person to office, what more can we do?"
Fansler had been an integral part of Bethel’s community for a while. He was a first term City Council member and managed the K300 for five years. For three years he worked as a math instructor at the University, where Pete said that he went out of his way to train associate teachers and to volunteer.
Fansler also advocated against domestic violence in a community that struggles with it. As a Jesuit Volunteer, Fansler worked for the Tundra Women’s Coalition shelter’s Teens Acting Against Violence program and he later became TWC’s legal advocate. Coalition board member Monica Charles remembers seeing Fansler at TWC’s candlelight vigils over the years. She also voted for him.
"I think like a lot of people, I was shocked," she said. "And then I was just vastly disappointed."
For Charles, the assault allegations against Fansler play into some of the worst stereotypes about Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities. It’s another bad mark against Bethel, she said, and whoever replaces Fansler will have to cope with it.
"I think that they're going to be scrutinized even more so than other people," she said. "They're going to be under the microscope for a while, and with the wave of these controversies coming up surrounding sexual assault and domestic violence across the nation, I think people are just are going to be hopefully more careful."
"Or mindful," she added. "Not just careful, but mindful."
Potential candidates hoping to replace Fansler must submit their paperwork by 5:00 p.m. today.