Two of the three major candidates for governor swapped bartending stories during what might be called their most spirited debate of the fall campaign to date Wednesday as they discussed workforce, business regulations and other hospitality industry issues during a forum hosted by the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association.
Democrat Les Gara and independent Bill Walker, participating in their 12th candidate forum since the Aug. 16 primary, continued criticizing Republican incumbent Mike Dunleavy for his absence from all but one of those events (and neither mentioned by name Republican candidate Charlie Pierce, who is far behind in polls and been largely absent from the campaign since the primary).
Gara’s and Walker’s ongoing criticisms of the governor were also consistently invoked in their responses to questions during the 90-minute midday forum at Louie’s Douglas Inn. Befitting the barroom atmosphere, the forum was untimed and candidates were not alerted to questions in advance.
But while Gara and Walker agreed on many of the issues discussed — another persisting element of the campaign — both distinguished themselves in specific policy areas and their approach to delivering their message.
Walker, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018 before losing his reelection bid to Dunleavy, emphasized from the beginning that most of his career has been as a businessman, including managing a hotel with 100 employees. That experience has included coping with difficulties from bureaucracies as well as bar patrons with poor bathroom etiquette.
“I can really imagine what you’re dealing with in the state of Alaska,” he said, adding a qualifier that perhaps he “couldn’t imagine” some of current difficulties audience members are having in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m anxious to hear from you at what can be done regulatory-wise to make the industry better for you.”
Gara, a member of the Alaska House of Representatives from 2003 to 2019, said he is aware of the hospitality industry’s issues as a part owner of an Anchorage cafe, although his share is small enough his suggestions tend to be “we should serve whole milk with our coffee.” He noted he has also been a waiter and bartender — even if the latter was just for a single shaky day as an emergency fill-in — and as with many questions during the debate referred to some of his primary campaign themes as solutions to industry-specific challenges.
“Our biggest export is people,” he said in his opening remarks after talking about his hospitality experience. “Our biggest export is talent. That’s not how you build an economy.”
Alaska’s tourism and service industry suffered some of the worst economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, stated CHARR President and CEO Sarah Oates, the moderator of the forum, in an early question to the candidates, When asked what they might have done differently than Dunleavy as governor to limit those impacts, both Gara and Walker agreed they would have distributed $290 million in federal small business aid immediately, instead of being paid out in a monthly process a recent audit found was slow and besieged with problems.
“To hold onto that money when businesses were closing, that’s just negligence,” Gara said.
Walker said he believes Dunleavy did “a pretty good job” at the onset of the pandemic by relying on informed experts, but erred with the small business aid. The challenger said he also would have issued a disaster declaration to obtain further assistance.
A statewide and nationwide labor shortage is one of the dominant lingering hardships of the pandemic, and was discussed at several points during Wednesday’s forum.
Walker said one of the programs he initiated as governor was a work program for prison inmates with less than six months remaining on their sentences, which got them involved in industries such as fishing at a time workers were needed while also providing income and work experience for the inmates. He, along with Gara, also talked about the need to address housing and child care shortages, mentioning Southeast Alaska programs such as Juneau’s city-supported assistance for child care workers and a land trust program in Sitka that provides low-income housing.
“We need to create a state again that people want to live in again,” Gara said, following that oft-repeated theme with another criticizing what he called $1.2 billion in state subsidies to oil companies that could be used instead for housing, health care and other purposes.
Supply chain difficulties also remain a major problem, in Alaska and globally, which Gara cited as one of the reasons to modernize and restore the reliability of the Alaska Marine Highway System. He also talked about the need for more cost-effective private industry operations.
“As a governor my strongest ability is to negotiate and talk with shippers,” he said. “I can’t mandate what they charge.”
Walker, noting he spent early Wednesday morning touring the Le Conte ferry before it departed carrying supplies to communities such as Kake, asserted ferry ridership has declined 70% during the past decade because “there’s no schedule you can rely upon.” He said he’d like to see the ferry system funded by an endowment so it’s not subject to year-to-year political whims and believes restoring services will help revive ridership.
“If you can’t make money in a bar on a boat, my God, seriously you’ve got about as captive an audience as you can get,” he said drawing laughs from the audience.
Among the specific hospitality industry questions at the forum was Alaska’s “dram shop” liquor liability law, which Oates said has resulted in some Alaska businesses serving alcohol seeing their insurance costs triple recently. When asked if they’d be open to considering changes to alter liability for individual businesses, including a “shared” liability provision used in other states, both candidates said they’d be open to it even if at present they’re not familiar with all of the specifics.
“I would be willing to look at something if we’re the only state doing something one way,” Gara said. Walker voiced a similar sentiment, despite his also embracing a bumper sticker declaring he doesn’t “give a damn how other states do things.”
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