Congressional candidates debate Alaska issues at chamber forum

With just over a month to go before the primary election, two Alaskan U.S. Congressional candidates, Republican Thomas “John” Nelson and Democrat Dimitri Shein, debated issues from gun policy to birth control in a joint Soldotna and Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Independent candidates Alyse Galvin and Christopher Cummings, Democrat Carol Hafner and Republican candidates Jed Whitaker and Rep. Don Young were invited to the debate but did not attend.

Nelson, along with his wife, is a multi-generational Alaskan who raised his family in Chugiak. A financial advisor, Nelson told a story about how he sent Young a letter when he was in sixth grade, and how Young sent back a signed photograph. Nelson expressed the need for a transition plan regarding Young’s experience and the new congressman.

Shein was born in Russia and moved to Alaska when he was 12. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he grew up in Anchorage. He owns a business in Anchorage and has worked in locations throughout rural Alaska. He said he’s running because he wants to see Alaska be economically successful.

Both candidates agreed it’s important for America to have a secure border. Nelson states firmly that it’s important for people to immigrate legally.

“We have to follow the law,” Nelson said.

Shein said he supported improvements in the immigration system, noting that many immigrants come to the U.S. to work in many labor-centric jobs, like fruit picking.

“If we don’t fix our immigration system, our pack of tomatoes will cost $50,” Shein said.

Nelson said his view on gun control is to have a steady aim, and that the second amendment was put in place to support the first amendment. Shein said he would like to see the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention perform a study on school shootings, what the causes and correlations are, and a plan to best deal with it.

“Is it video games, is it mental health?” Shein said. “Why does our government not have a study done?”

Planned Parenthood, a national reproductive health care provider, came into the discussion. In recent years, Republicans in the national Congress have specifically targeted eliminating federal funding for the group, objecting to the fact that Planned Parenthood provides abortion services among other health care services. Shein said he opposes the effort to defund Planned Parenthood and discussed how his wife, who is a physician, worked with the organization as part of her residency.

“If we defund it we’re going to lose that training and knowledge,” Shein said.

Nelson said he is pro-life and said that the government does not have any business funding Planned Parenthood.

“I’m not supporting an organization that teaches one side of the story,” Nelson said.

Both candidates support state’s rights in legalizing marijuana. However, on the federal level Nelson said the federal government has no business in it, while Shein disagreed and said he saw it as an economic benefit.

“I think [marijuana] has been a positive change for our economy,” Shein said. “The feds should legalize it and tax it.”

One of the Alaska Congressional delegation’s much-discussed accomplishments in the last year was the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, a long-sought goal for Alaska. Both candidates said they saw and supported the economic opportunities. However, Shein said he saw it as a double-edged sword.

“It’s good for job growth, but we need to diversify our economy,” Shein said. “We have become too dependent on oil.”

The candidates diverged on support for Ballot Measure One, the controversial state ballot proposition that would significantly rewrite the state’s laws on development permits in salmon habitat. Advocates say it’s a long-overdue update to a law that will protect salmon resources from irresponsible habitat destruction for years to come; opponents say it would hamstring resource development in the state and cost the state jobs.

Nelson simply said he would vote no on the proposition, while Shein said the initiative is necessary and that he would support it.

When it came to a proposed state income tax and state sales tax, both candidates said they would prefer a state sales tax, referring to it as a “user fee.” Shein said it was important to diversify the state revenue stream.

“A sales tax would be more responsible because it would make us pay and not bankrupt our children,” Shein said.

“We need to cut wasteful spending,” Nelson said. “We don’t need a state income tax, but I support a user fee.”

The Permanent Fund Dividend cap came into question with Shein saying he recognizes it hurts people in the villages, but that it is important to keep the state out of debt in the future.

Nelson simply said he does not support the cap and that it will hurt Alaska’s economy.

The primary election will be August 21.

Reach Victoria Petersen at vpetersen@peninsulaclarion.com.

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