This combination image shows gubernatorial candidates Les Gara and Bill Walker. Gara, a former Democratic state lawmaker, and Walker, former independent governor of Alaska, took questions during a forum held as part of the annual Southeast Conference meeting. Both candidates noted the absence of incumbent Gov, Mike Dunleavy, who has been a no-show at several recent forums. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

This combination image shows gubernatorial candidates Les Gara and Bill Walker. Gara, a former Democratic state lawmaker, and Walker, former independent governor of Alaska, took questions during a forum held as part of the annual Southeast Conference meeting. Both candidates noted the absence of incumbent Gov, Mike Dunleavy, who has been a no-show at several recent forums. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

Walker, Gara largely agree on Southeast issues — and governor’s absence

Dunleavy again absent at candidate forum as two other contenders talk ferries, fish and finances

In what’s become the usual, two of the three major candidates for governor agreed on plenty of general points, including denouncing the habitual absence of the incumbent, during a forum focusing on Southeast Alaska issues including mariculture, mining and ferries on Wednesday in Ketchikan.

“Sometimes I feel like only two of us are running for governor,” Democratic candidate Les Gara told the audience at the annual Southeast Conference meeting. Independent candidate and former governor Bill Walker, participating remotely online, concurred by stating “it’s pretty insulting to this group to not even be on Zoom.”

While the two candidates opted to classify the absence as uncaring or unwilling to discuss issues, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy scored a dominant win with 40% of the vote in last month’s primary and polling has constantly suggested he is well-positioned to be reelected to a second term. He has participated in one of seven forums since the primary, hosted by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, and has said he intends to participate in five such events before the election.

The Ketchikan forum came at the midpoint of the three-day Southeast Conference, following in-depth panels and other discussions covering most economic and societal issues relevant to the region. Questions to the two candidates were largely based on concerns expressed during the earlier events, beginning with each candidate’s priorities for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Both Gara and Walker called the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill an “opportunity of a lifetime” since it includes $1 billion for “essential ferry service” largely targeted at Alaska.

[Gara and Walker square off in Kenai forum]

“The devil is in the details in making sure the intent is followed through on the implementation of that,” Walker said, noting as governor he worked cooperatively with federal government and congressional members regardless of political affiliation to secure policy and funding agreements.

Modernizing the ferry fleet needs to be a priority with the funds since, in addition to the high maintenance and frequent unavailability of the existing aging vessels, reliable ships will help address the crucial worker shortage that also is impairing operations, Gara said.

“The state has an obligation to pay workers fairly and provide a retirement benefit so workers will stay here,” he said, a theme he repeated when talking about state departments and services.

Boosting Southeast Alaska’s economy, which conference officials say was the hardest hit in the state by the COVID-19 pandemic, was expectedly raised in multiple questions, beginning with child care since it was cited as a key element of allowing people to return to work. Both candidates agreed it’s a statewide problem that needs state funding, but solutions need to be local rather than “universal.”

“I feel those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” Walker said, citing Juneau’s municipal government providing grants to licensed child care providers using pandemic-related federal CARES Act relief funds starting in 2020.

Gara, while citing Juneau’s program, said he also favors seeking solutions by “looking to some states to see what works.”

Housing was the other issue many Southeast Conference members responding to a survey said needs addressing so people can participate in occupational activities that boost the economy. Gara said a large part of the current problem is a drastic reduction in state capital budget spending, since lack of adequate and efficient infrastructure contributes to high housing and related living costs.

Revising state land trusts was cited by Walker, who referred to the Sitka Community Land Trust as an example of a program that can secure property and allow for housing that’s available to lower-income residents.

He and Gara also agreed on the need for better energy infrastructure in the region to reduce high costs due to inflation and fuel prices. While both support renewables as a long-range solution, Walker said he favors an immediate plan for the coming winter that will require legislative approval — but provided no details of what that plan is.

The contentious issues of fisheries, which have been besieged by climate and political impacts that have varied widely even within the region, is another area where both candidates agreed on some of their major goals. Both, for example, agreed Alaska should have a majority of seats on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

As for mariculture and boosting sales of Alaska seafood, Walker again referred to his experience working with international delegations that resulted in agreements with Asian markets. Gara said reversing cuts to Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute funding is needed, as is wildlife management that ensures “we have the wildest, most sustainable fisheries in the world.”

Walker also invoked his experience in addressing concerns about mining issues, saying cooperation has been essential in mapping the region’s mineral resources and looking ahead it’s “appropriate to bring back coastal zone management.” Gara mentioned similar policy goals, while also stating “I will not trade fish for mines, but we do have a responsible mining history in the state, especially in the Southeast.”

Both candidates ventured into broader topics in their closing statements, including Gara noting his support of abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, while Walker also stating he would veto legislation restricting abortion and denouncing what he called an unprecedented current level of partisanship during his lengthy involvement in state politics.

Both also reiterated attacks on Dunleavy for not participating in most of the forums to date, while avoiding mention of the political strategy/advantage the incumbent possesses less than two months before election day.

Gara and Walker evenly split about 46% of the primary vote, but surveys suggest neither are positioned to get a majority in the general election under the state’s new ranked choice voting. That’s because the fourth candidate in the race is Republican Charlie Pierce, who’s been absent from all debates and forums since getting about 7% of the vote in the primary and is currently under scrutiny after resigning in the wake of a harassment complaint against him. Virtually all of Pierce’s voters are seen as ranking Dunleavy as their second-choice candidate.

Walker closed his pitch by blaming Dunleavy for the current political divisiveness, while Gara chipped in with a comment suggesting his willingness to reach across the aisle when appropriate.

“I’m going to put Gov. Walker down second” on the ballot, Gara said. “He’s shown up.”

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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