All eyes are on Kenai and Soldotna as we approach the August Republican primary election, when we decide whether to reelect Rep. Gary Knopp. The race has already brought our community an unusual amount of political attention, an unusual amount of big accusations, not to mention an unusual number of angry Wasilla visitors. I’m afraid we’re just getting started.
There are lots of versions of how we got here. Some are pretty exciting. As is often the case, the facts are comparatively boring and harder to accept.
The Legislature has one primary responsibility: to pass a budget. It takes 21 votes to pass a budget in the House, and to get the job done a majority of legislators must form a governing caucus that selects leadership and commits to passing that budget.
In 2018, Gary was one of 21 Republicans elected to the House. But it was clear from very early on that some type of bipartisan coalition was going to be necessary to pass a budget. With only 21 members, any single legislator in that caucus would have veto power and control over the other 20 members. The Republicans knew they were divided on critical issues like funding the marine highway and the PFD, and knew that a 21-member caucus would quickly fall apart, without getting the job done.
In particular, Rep. David Eastman from the Mat-Su has basically refused every opportunity to work with his Republican colleagues. The AK GOP is running against Rep. Eastman from the left in his own Republican Primary this summer for that exact reason. Everyone knew that a 21-member majority with David Eastman as the 21st vote would fail.
Only one person had the guts to admit it.
Some Republicans wanted to kick the can down the road, wait for the caucus to fail, and figure it out later. Gary is not a can-kicker. He refused to turn into an obedient lemming and follow orders he knew were bad. As a result, Gary and five other Republicans joined independents and Democrats to form a bipartisan majority coalition. Though the coalition is majority Democrat, the majority of the leadership roles went to Republicans.
In particular, Gary used his role in the coalition to make sure we didn’t end up taxing Alaskan families with one hand just so that we could pay out an unsustainable PFD with the other. (Instituting a tax to pay a bigger PFD is the kind of backwards result you get when everyone pretends that everything is fine just to keep the party bosses happy.)
I don’t agree with everything Gary has done, but I admire his courage to do the pragmatic thing necessary to get the job done, knowing he’d catch hell for it. Perhaps ironically, it’s the kind of principled leadership that makes me proud to call myself a Republican. While the other side likes to talk, Republicans are supposed to roll up their sleeves and get the work done.
Gary’s opponents say they’re mad that he compromised. They wear different costumes but are reading from the same script: big dividend checks and big cuts to infrastructure and jobs on the Kenai (like the Wildwood Correctional Center or the Central Peninsula Hospital).
But we’ve seen this show before and we know how it ends. In fact, one of Gary’s opponents has already admitted to the Clarion that the proposal to pay out an unsustainable PFD would likely end up requiring taxes.
We are about to head into the most consequential legislative session in recent memory, and it’s critical that we elect an effective legislator for our district. Someone who actually cares about getting the job done. The COVID pandemic is gaining a larger toehold in the state. Businesses are struggling. There are no more savings to drain. So when I choose between the guy who is willing to be honest about our situation and make the tough calls, or the guys who make the big promises without any plans to back them up, the choice is easy.
If you haven’t had the chance, find some time to talk to Gary. He will tell it like it is, even if you’re yelling in his face. And as a young Alaskan and proud Republican, that’s exactly who I want representing me in Juneau.
Jackson Blackwell was born and raised in Alaska and is a lifelong Republican and a proud graduate of Soldotna High.