Striking differences between Alaska’s four candidates for governor were clearly demonstrated in a mere 45-minute debate largely focusing on Alaska Native and rural issues at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Saturday in Anchorage.
The debate at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage was the finale of three forums featuring all of the candidates in Alaska’s major races — a rarity of attendance testifying to AFN’s political potency — and occurred three days after all four gubernatorial hopefuls made a rare appearance together in an hourlong forum broadcast on statewide TV and streamed online.
But unlike that debate, which featured rapid-fire questions and candidates rushing to squeeze answers into a minute or less of response time, Saturday’s face-off involved only a few questions with time for more in-depth responses. That was plenty, however, to reveal the policies, mannerisms and audience favorites among the contenders.
When asked about public safety, for example, Republican Charlie Pierce, who is facing a recently filed sexual harassment lawsuit, read from notes while offering the contrasting declaration “we need to shore up the federal funding that’s required. I think it comes back to taking responsibility for ourselves.”
Democrat Les Gara was the lone candidate who seemed to do without referring to notes, repeating campaign stalwarts such as calling not having law enforcement officers in 50 communities “19th century policing” and “this is a problem you face when you have a state where you say ’let’s do things without any money.’”
Bill Walker, an independent who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, referred to notes occasionally while stating he started a statewide rape kit program using a grant, and his future goal include tribal compacts and moving some law enforcement training programs to rural communities so trainees learn the appropriate skills.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, reading more from notes than during some other answers, recited a long list of figures he says shows his commitment to public safety such as crime being at a 41-year low (a drop that also largely coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic). “We have lots of work to do, there’s no doubt about it, but we’ve done tremendous amounts of work,” he said.
A more specific public safety question focused on a large number of inmate deaths in state correctional facilities this year, some for reasons still not publicly known. Dunleavy offered an largely “nothing to see here” reply that drew attacks from his challengers.
“So far the investigations have shown none of these individuals have died at the hands of others,” he said. While the state is “always looking at what we can do to improve, we always have folks who pass away in our care…once we find out how these individuals passed away I think most people will realize they passed away either from health issues or suicides.”
Gara, the harshest critic of Dunleavy’s record among his challengers during the campaign, said at least three of the deaths have been confirmed as suicides and attacked the governor’s lack of a response to addressing the problem.
“You do not put a suicidal person in solitary confinement in the cold when they need help,” Gara said. Furthermore, with other deaths “the families have been asking to see the videos the state has not released.”
The question of making videos from correctional facilities public was emphasized by Walker, who as with some other issues during the campaign embraced a controversial decision to release a video in an inmate death despite being told the state could be sued.
“I said ’we should be sued,’” Walker said, adding more treatment for substance abuse and mental health is needed because “prison is not a rehab facility.”
Pierce, in a relatively short response, said he agrees with the challengers more evaluation of incoming inmates is needed along with more open disclosure when deaths occur.
The housing of residents has been a dominant issue during the campaign due to lack of availability and affordability, and the candidates’ responses were as varied as the types of homes in the Last Frontier.
Pierce said he favors public-private partnerships, and providing land and resources by obtaining those under federal control.
“Alaskans need to take control of themselves,” he said. “We need to take responsibility for ourselves. We’ve watched the federal government put a lock on Alaska.”
Dunleavy, as a fellow Republican, also said he favors less federal control such as “making sure you can use our own timber through regulation to build housing by reducing lumber costs.” He said his administration has also been trying to address the problem through actions such as seeking lower interest rates through the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.
AHFC funds exist, but are not being spent to provide housing, Gara countered. He said other funding sources such as Housing and Urban Development and tribal entities are not being fully utilized, and repeated his oft-stated goal of eliminating oil tax subsidies to companies as a way of generating more than $1 billion annually for state programs.
Walker, taking a different track, focused on reducing energy costs, especially in rural areas facing astronomical prices.
“You can’t bring businesses there and jobs there without bringing down the cost of energy,” he said.
Tribal relations with Alaska’s government, took what many Alaska Natives called an important symbolic step forward in July when Dunleavy signed a bill recognizing the state’s 229 federally recognized tribes. When the candidates were asked what they would do to continue advancing tribal relations, the governor noted he also signed into law a tribal compact for schools, increased child welfare funds and his 20 years of living in rural Alaska showed him “we can’t get Alaska to where we need to be without working with everybody here in the state of Alaska.”
Walker, again reaching back to his term as governor, answered “we will continue to do what we were doing” when his administration had a tribal liaison in every state department.
“This is a historic opportunity for Alaska to be working directly with and compacting with tribes.” he said. “Many of the issues that have been discussed on this stage today can be resolved by compacting with the tribes.”
Tribal justice and equity were cited by Gara as his next steps, along with compacts in social areas such as foster care. He also got a strong round of applause when talking about “working with tribes than against tribes” on resource issues.
“How loud do we have to be say ’no Pebble Mine’ before there’s no Pebble Mine?” he asked, referring to a proposed Bristol Bay project critics say will further endanger salmon habitats.
Pierce said his next steps would include allowing more local control and better training for Village Public Safety Officers.
The debate ended the same way as the two other candidate forums during the day, with a lighting round of lighthearted questions — and since they were the same questions as earlier the gubernatorial hopefuls had time to polish their punchlines.
Dunleavy showed perhaps the most polish on the question about whether he’s eaten muktuk during the past week, responding “multiple times — bowhead and beluga, and do it with salt and mustard.” Gara answered in the affirmative and noted it’s a good way for a politician to draw a crowd at AFN, Pierce gave a qualified affirmative by noting he “skipped the seal oil,” and Walker answered in the negative.
When asked if they were ready for winter, the governor also gave a chill answer with “as soon as my Arctic Cat is tuned up; it’s my favorite time of year.” Walker waffled with a “sort of.” Gara was a bit more definitive by observing “this campaign has taken me away from fishing season, so I missed a summer.” Pierce gave an answer of sustenance by declaring “we have canned all the fish and the jam and the vegetables.”
There was a noteworthy elephant in the room during the forum as a lawsuit accusing Pierce of sexual harassment while Kenai’s mayor was filed by an executive assistant on Friday. Pierce resigned as mayor in late August under a cloud of speculation, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly subsequently stated he was the subject of a “credible” harassment complaint in July, and until recently he has essentially been invisible during the campaign.
The lawsuit and any inferences to the allegations against Pierce were not mentioned during Saturday’s forum.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com.