When Gary Knopp returned to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in October 2015, he didn’t waste any time jumping back into leadership roles.
Within the first few months, he was on the board of the Alaska Municipal League representing the borough, chairing the Policies and Procedures Committee and regularly weighing in on issues before the assembly, though he doesn’t sponsor much himself. He was a regular attendee at the meetings of the borough’s Healthcare Task Force, the former iteration of which he chaired in 2010.
When he jumped into the race to fill the House of Representatives seat for District 30, the most contested race in the state, he received support from other sitting assembly members, even though winning would mean he’d have to leave the assembly after just a year back on.
Knopp and three other candidates will be on the ballot to replace current Rep. Kurt Olson (R-Kenai), who earlier this year announced his intention not to run again for the seat. Two terms ago in 2012, Knopp ran against Olson in the Republican primary but was ultimately unsuccessful.
After running, he returned to the assembly for a short time before reaching the two-term limit — which had just been instated a few years before — and stepping down in late 2012.
He always kept tabs on what was happening, though, and when the assembly seat in District 1 came up for election again, he stepped up and won the seat back in a four-way race by a slender margin of only four votes.
Sitting assembly members have voiced their support for him both vocally and financially. During the Oct. 25 assembly meeting, newly elected assembly president Kelly Cooper wished him good luck in the upcoming election. Just before leaving office after the Oct. 11 meeting, then-assembly member Brent Johnson, who has supported Knopp in both of his campaigns, shared a story of how Knopp stepped in to help the Ninilchik Senior Center to repair its septic system.
“Gary — I emailed him because I know two things, because he knows exactly how these things work and he’s a really good guy,” he said at the Oct. 11 meeting. “Just like I suspected might happen, he went down there with a couple of guys and got that thing squared away so it’s just working fine.”
Linda Murphy, who served with Knopp on the assembly during his previous terms, said she’s chosen to support him despite being a Democrat herself. The key issue for her was the restructuring of the Permanent Fund to use the earnings to fund state government, which Knopp supports while the Democratic candidate, Shauna Thornton, does not.
“I don’t agree with Gary on a lot of issues, but on this one, I do,” Murphy said.
Things haven’t always gone swimmingly on the assembly, though.
When the assembly dealt with the anadromous streams ordinance, discussions got heated multiple times between assembly members. The same went for the discussions in 2010 on whether to partner with another organization for the borough’s two hospitals to help buffer the hospitals from oncoming health care reform.
Charlie Pierce, who also served with Knopp on the assembly during prior terms, said he chose not to support Knopp during the primaries, preferring current Kenai City Manager Rick Koch because of Koch’s experience working with finances and with the city council there, he said. Though he said he wished Knopp luck, he said he doubted his chances of succeeding in Juneau.
“Will Gary Knopp be able to implement (getting a fiscal plan in place)?” Pierce said. “I’m doubtful. I watched him for six years waffle back and forth on the hospital issue.”
Olson, who defeated Knopp in the 2012 primary by approximately 293 votes, said he thinks it likely that Knopp would come out successful because District 30 tends to be fairly conservative.
“I don’t think Gary is going to have a problem,” he said.
After 12 years in the Legislature, Olson is stepping down amid a reshuffling of many incumbents. So far, 10 sitting House of Representatives members will not be returning to their positions, and many of those seeking to replace them are Legislature newcomers. None of the candidates running for Olson’s seat — Knopp, Thornton, Constitution Party candidate J.R. Myers and nonpartisan candidate Daniel Lynch — have been elected to the Legislature before, though Knopp and Lynch have both held other elected positions.
“My personal feeling is that (the Legislature is) not going to have a happy ending next year,” Olson said. “It’ll be the year after next before we make any real progress.”
However, some think Knopp will do fine despite being a newcomer. Soldotna resident Linda Hutchings, who has served on local government boards like Soldotna’s Charter Commission and the Soldotna Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, said she supports Knopp.
A member of the state Worker’s Compensation Board, she said she has known both Olson and Knopp through her work there. She said she appreciated that he is down-to-earth and that his work through the Alaska Municipal League board has prepared him through connections and interactions in Anchorage and Juneau there.
“AML’s been a huge source of information for him,” she said. “Because I have sat on some state boards, I have interaction with these people in Anchorage, in Juneau, and he’s very well thought of in those spheres.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.