With incumbent Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) absent from this year’s state Alaska House District 29 race for the first time since 2001, Shawn Butler of Hope is one of the two first-time office seekers going after the job.
Chenault is planning a run for governor, vacating the seat that represents the north and east Kenai Peninsula. So far Butler, an independent running in the Democratic primary, and Republican Ben Carpenter of Nikiski, are the only candidates who have filed for the Aug. 21 primary. The application deadline is June 1.
The Clarion profiled Carpenter in its May 17 issue.
Butler, a retired military officer and current assistant professor in the University of Alaska Anchorage computer science department, decided to run at the beginning of 2018 in part because of the impact the state’s financial crisis was having in her workplace. State funding for the university has been cut $145 million over the past four years, according to a February speech by University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen. The university has 50 fewer programs than it did three years ago.
“I can see the impact that budget cuts make to the (University of Alaska) firsthand,” Butler said. “I felt like our fiscal plan is more shortsighted than long-term. I appreciate what oil revenue has done for the state, but I also think it’s always risky to put too much dependence on one source of revenue.”
Butler said she would look for ways to diversify economy beyond oil and gas, listing tourism and the proposed state-owned North Slope natural gas project as potential. Butler said she wouldn’t favor heavy spending cuts as a fiscal solution.
“When I look around the state, I honestly don’t see a lot of excessive government spending,” Butler said. “I don’t go line by line through the budget, but I don’t see a lot of state employees sitting around doing nothing. I’ve received good service from our state employees.”
Nor would she favor using more Permanent Fund earnings, an idea she said is “not good management because it’s like burning your rainy day money when you should have been better planning for your future.”
Butler’s 20-year military career brought her from her native state of Pennsylvania to Alaska in 1991, when she was assigned to Elmendorf Air Force Base to develop command and control software. She also worked on military intelligence and artificial intelligence during tours in Germany, Korea, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Following the Elmendorf assignment, Butler said she was chief systems engineer for the Department of Defense’s Global Command and Control computer system.
After retiring as a lieutenant colonel, Butler finished a computer science doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University in 2003 and returned to Alaska, keeping residences in Anchorage and Hope, where she’d bought a vacation cabin during her time at Elmendorf. When she moved to Hope full-time, she was working remotely for an information technology consultancy she had started.
“I care a lot about the fact that a lot of places, including our own Kenai Peninsula Borough, aren’t well-connected on the internet,” Butler said. “When I got to Hope, I didn’t realize we didn’t have good internet, and at the time I was kind of surprised. I got a satellite for a while, but of course when it snowed my satellite dish was crappy. So I made up my mind that I was going to get better internet for the town — and for myself, obviously, because I needed it and wanted it. This is how people participate in the rest of the world.”
Butler proposed a internet connection to Hope to the Anchorage-based telecommunications company ACS, which said they’d be willing to build it if there was enough demand. Butler put out signs and collected signatures of interested residents, and “eight months later ACS started sending out boxes,” she said.
After being involved in other civic efforts in Hope — such as a campaign to distribute bear-proof trash cans to businesses — Butler said friends ask her run for the presidency of Hope Inc., the unincorporated town’s nonprofit legal entity. She held that position for about three years.
Improving internet connectivity is still among Butler’s political priorities. In her university job, she’s working on offering introductory computer science classes online, as “a way of encouraging people to develop skills they may do something with, but still live in their communities and work remotely,” she said. Better internet, she said, is tied to the state’s need for economic diversity.
“I know there are a lot of people interested in developing the technological side of Alaska’s capabilities, which is a little bit out there, but I think some of it is possible,” she said. “I work remotely, I know it can be done.”
In office, Butler said she’d seek federal funding for connectivity projects.
Lowering health care costs is a third policy concern, a goal which she said “is going to take a lot of different, small actions.” Recent health care debates, Butler said, have focused on making insurance more available rather than looking at the causes of high costs, which she identified as a lack of competition among providers and the high costs of medical education.
“We’re negotiating with insurance companies, when I think we need to be negotiating with pharmaceutical companies and finding ways to get health care up here,” Butler said. “When we have specialists charging exorbitant rates and the insurance companies are willing to fly you down to Seattle because it’s cheaper for them, I think that starts putting pressure on those specialists. I think that’s going to help.”
Butler described herself as a quiet, persistent problem-solver.
“I’m not an aggressive, assertive, in-your-face person, but I just work it, I say ‘alright, we need to change it,’” she said. “And eventually I can get people won over, or to understand the issue.”