In the race for the Alaska State House seat in District 29, which represents Nikiski, Sterling, Funny River, Cooper Landing and Seward, nonpartisan candidate Paul Dale is running against Republican incumbent Rep. Ben Carpenter. Dale spoke with the Clarion on Oct. 13 about his candidacy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Carpenter had not agreed to an interview with the Clarion as of press time Monday.
Why did you decide to run for election?
Dale: Well, I’ve always been interested in Alaska politics. When I was younger I had a chance to be more involved in politics, but I was also involved with a young family and a fledgling business, so I focused on those two. At that time I served as a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and was a legislative aide for a local representative the year that the permanent fund dividend was passed. It was very exciting times, and politics were very interesting to me, but I decided to focus my attention elsewhere. I thought at the time that someday I’ll put my shoulder into electoral politics and when I do, I’ll have a ton of experience to add to that services.
So why now?
Dale: I have the time, I have the focus, and the challenge is greater than it’s ever been. I really think my particular combination of business and civic and political experience adds up to a hard-to-beat candidate.
I’m used to making difficult financial decisions and I’m used to budgets. I somehow have developed a personality that I think makes it easy for me to talk to people on both sides of any aisle, and do that with respect and consideration for what you have to say.
I consider myself a very good communicator, and I think that’s a critically important skill. I think background is equally important though, and I really believe I bring a lifetime of relevant experience to this position.
Party politics played a big role in the last legislative session. Given that you’re running as a nonpartisan candidate unaffiliated with either party, how would you navigate the divide between Republicans and Democrats in the next session?
Dale: I think what people should understand is that I would happily join whatever majority happens to form in the next Legislature if my interests and intentions lined up with the caucus’s interests or intentions. That could be primarily Democratic or primarily Republican.
The truth is, over the decades, most caucuses in the House have been an amalgamation of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and independents. And that’s just been the fact. It has been difficult to round up what you might call a pure ideological caucus, and the numbers generally are not there in strong enough numbers to run a caucus that will hold up under the pressure of forming and passing a budget. That will be even more true when forming and passing a budget that is made more complicated by a lot less money than we’re used to.
What would you prioritize when deciding who to caucus with?
Dale: Well, we’re all interested in issues that are close to our hearts. And for most people, our education, keeping roads maintained and the snow plowed, maintaining our infrastructure, these are things almost everyone is willing to pay for, and need.
The problem, of course, underlying every good effort by the government, is the budget. And it is the budget deficits that we’ve been dragging forward for the a half-dozen years that concern me most of all. I will actively seek to connect with legislators who feel as I do regarding the budget, and that is that we can no longer continue to borrow money from savings.
It is an unbalanced budget, and that has, I think, undermined Alaska to a greater extent than most people are willing to admit. It has undermined our credit rating, our confidence, the confidence of potential investors, and it causes us to worry about the future we will leave for our children and grandchildren. And I think it really needs to be set right.
What would you prioritize in trying to balance the state’s budget?
Dale: To answer your question directly, I would prioritize a functioning Alaskan government over any dividend amount. The amount of the dividend will follow the budget and its affordability.
It’s an interesting question for me because as I indicated earlier, I was serving as a legislative aide for a guy named Hugh Malone, who is generally recognized as one of the four or five prime movers in getting the dividend program established. So while it wasn’t my primary job, I was privy to the conversations about the concept of the dividend and why we should do it and how it might work.
It’s abundantly clear to me that it was to set aside a portion of oil wealth for a time when oil wouldn’t be able to pay the bills that we have as a state. I think that time has been here for a while, and it’s time to treat the dividend fund differently than we have the last 40 years. I think the math is inescapable. I have no doubt that changes in that area are painful and will be painful for a great number of people, and that’s difficult, but we simply have to get Alaska’s economic house in order.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, what do you think the Alaska Legislature can do during its next session to lessen the economic impact that Kenai Peninsula residents have seen and continue to see?
Dale: Well, number one, what they haven’t done an especially stellar job of was managing the flow of federal COVID response money. The CARES Act funding that came our way in April and May of earlier this year, much of it is still unspent. It should be on the street.
Especially when Congress is probably on the verge of a CARES Act round two. Having money unspent is never the best place to be when new money shows up. That’s, I think, a valid criticism. If I were a legislator I think I would have worked with others to, if not make sure that we can revisit this issue, have that responsibility assigned to a smaller group of legislators and the governor.
I don’t think they should have left Juneau without addressing the easy-to-forecast problem that have occurred. We just have had distribution problems that were unnecessary.
Do you have any specific ideas on how to get that money into people’s hands quicker?
Dale: Everyone involved was well intentioned, I understand that. No one set out to make the process slower than it needed to be. But, perhaps selecting lending institutions to distribute these funds may not have been the best choice.
I mean, they are lenders, and when you loan money, you expect to be repaid. You operate differently, with a level of care, attention and evaluation that is quite thorough. The goal of pandemic relief money is different than that. And I think the differences call for a different distribution method. I think the Small Business Administration did better in that regard than commercial banks did, largely because they’re used to responding to crises — be they crop shortages, commercial fishing run failures, whatever they are. They’re still loans, but they are used to responding in a way that has the reality of the crisis in mind and they know that speed is inherently important.
As we’re seeing cases rise across Alaska and we head into the winter months, should the state be doing anything more to slow the infection rate?
Dale: By and large, I give the state reasonably high marks for the pandemic measures that are in place, and they’ve been good about encouraging Alaskans to wear masks. You and I are wearing masks here, and we’re talking across a wide table, and that’s good. That’s what it should be.
We simply need to manage the virus until we come up with a vaccination program that might really put it to an end. Until then, I think we’re all responsible for reducing transmission numbers, and it’s simple. It’s mask-wearing, washing hands, and being careful with interactions as we move indoors.
My opponent wrote a 1,500-word email to the governor and his Republican colleagues a few weeks ago encouraging them basically to let it rip and remove the existing mandates that we have managing coronavirus. I think that was an irresponsible suggestion.
Why do you think that?
Dale: I think the mandates that circumscribe air travel in and out of Alaska are worthwhile. I think every measure the state has in place now regarding the virus is worthwhile. And I don’t think we need a retraction of it.
With the University of Alaska system facing $70 million cuts over the next three years and eliminating many programs already, what do you see for the future of Alaska’s University system, especially in regards to Kenai Peninsula College?
Dale: We do have KPC right here in our backyard, and we might not have it (in the future). I hope people are aware that the original budget reductions were precluded on maintaining KPC. The budget reductions were achieved in an interesting way via negotiation with the governor instead of a legislative review and decision-making process. But the university accepted that proposal and have been working with it and are likely to continue to work with it.
I am hopeful that the university will accept the challenge of the budget reductions that they’ve been handed. And I think they will continue to offer the degree programs that Alaskans need. There will be some further consolidations, I imagine, but I think we’ll end up with a university that works and a university that we can afford.
What is your position on the Pebble Mine project?
Dale: Quite simple: wrong mine, wrong area. I can’t support it. I also think that the public misses a salient fact in the Pebble Mine and that is that they’ve been at it for a dozen years or so and have had many opportunities to submit a mine plan, and they haven’t.
And there are different reasons for that, but one of them is that I think economically it’s been marginally viable, and they have failed to attract investors that were willing to stick with the program and put money into it. So not only is the mine itself problematic, I think it’s problematic on simple economics as well.
Why should voters choose you over your opponent in this election?
Dale: I’ve always been able to be a leader, and I’ve always been able to get things done. I created a fairly successful business starting with absolutely nothing, and I was able to do that because I think I could attract and retain good employees. I think loyalty was always there, loyalty on both sides. And I think I have a clear leadership vision. I would make decisions based on long-term goals and good strategic plans. If I were a legislator, I would approach my charge in Juneau similarly, with economy and efficiency and long-term strategies in mind.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Dale: There is one thing, and that is that a number of people are concerned that — because I’m running as an independent — I may be more like a Democrat. I would like to say that I was a Democrat for a great number of years of my life in this area. And I started voting for Republicans, supporting Republicans, campaigning for some Republicans, and I realized that maybe I should change my voting affiliation to better reflect my voting habits, so I became a nonpartisan.
That happened a couple years ago, and for me it’s genuine. Should I get to Juneau, I will work with any group of people, any affiliation to move the ball forward. And I think it’s likely, should I get elected, that I would wind up in a position where we’d be part of the decision-making, not in the back corner.
Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at firstname.lastname@example.org.