Juneau Assembly member Rob Edwardson is running for District 34 House seat in the Mendenhall Valley. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Juneau Assembly member Rob Edwardson is running for District 34 House seat in the Mendenhall Valley. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Election 2018: Edwardson blazes independent’s path in upcoming primary

Former chief of staff to Rep. Justin Parish aims to take over Mendenhall Valley district

Editor’s note: Early voting for the Aug. 21 statewide primary election begins Monday, Aug. 6. Anyone who is registered to vote in Southeast Alaska can cast a vote at the Division of Elections regional headquarters in Mendenhall Mall. As early voting begins, the Empire is publishing profiles of the six candidates who are in contested primary elections for Juneau House seats. A special voter guide covering all primary candidates will be published on the Sunday before the primary election day.

In the Mendenhall Valley, Coast Guard veteran and former legislative staffer Rob Edwardson is looking to pick up where Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau, is leaving off.

“Well, I wasn’t actually planning on running for the State House,” Edwardson told the Empire in a Thursday meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board. “Not this year, not ever really.”

That changed when Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau, decided he wasn’t going to run for a second term after his 2016 upset of incumbent Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau.

“I had thought about it off and on like most people do, but I kind of discounted that,” he said.

When Parish decided, he asked Edwardson — who was working as Parish’s chief of staff — to run instead.

Edwardson accepted.

He now finds himself facing Democrat Andi Story in the Democratic primary for House District 34, which covers the Mendenhall Valley. Edwardson is running as an independent, and if he wins, he would face Republican candidate Jerry Nankervis in the November general election.

Asked about his top priorities, Edwardson led with the state’s fiscal situation.

“One of the things I would like is I would like a complete comprehensive fiscal plan,” he said.

“I don’t believe that the oil production or prices are going to rise to the point where we can have the gravy days that we had before,” he said.

With that in mind, Edwardson believes a comprehensive fiscal plan would include “a modest tax like the one that was proposed in the 2017 House Majority Coalition budget.”

That proposal involved a state income tax based on a proportion of the federal income tax, changes to the state’s oil tax structure, spending from the Alaska Permanent Fund and modest budget cuts.

Edwardson said he supports a return to a system of gross taxes for oil revenue (the state switched to a net tax in 2006) and believes the state needs to “reduce the incentives that are given for our resources.”

Edwardson was born in Sitka in 1965 but grew up in Ketchikan. While young, he worked on commercial fishing boats. At age 19, he married Sandy (Brown) Edwardson and in the mid-1980s worked at the Ketchikan pulp mill.

At age 22, he switched careers and joined the U.S. Coast Guard.

Talking to the Empire, he said he had approached an Army recruiter, but that recruiter encouraged him to look at the Coast Guard instead.

That decision led to 20 years of service onshore and aboard ship at locations across the country and overseas. After leaving the Coast Guard, he worked for a series of state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Health and Social Services, and the Department of Natural Resources. He even worked for a time as the building manager at the state Capitol.

“I’m a candidate with experience in natural resources and energy and conservation and state budgeting and many different things over the years,” he said.

Beyond the state budget, one of the leading issues for many Alaskans is the state’s crime rate. The Empire’s editorial board asked Edwardson whether he believes Senate Bill 91, the keystone criminal justice reform legislation approved by lawmakers in 2016, should be repealed.

“I don’t think it should be repealed. I don’t think it should be repealed in part. I think it could have been executed with more finesse,” he said.

Edwardson pointed out the legislation passed and became effective before all of its component parts were ready. That caused problems. In addition, he explained that it is important to examine the “root causes” of crime, not just what Alaska does in response to crime.

“You’re talking about people who are stealing because they’re addicts. What are the root causes of that? Is it because they’re naturally more criminal or is it because they’re addicted?” he said.

Asked about transportation routes to and from Juneau, Edwardson said he is in favor of “a road that’s properly planned and goes from pavement to pavement.”

He said the canceled Juneau Access Project was effectively moving a ferry terminal farther out, not building a road. That kind of solution could have been “a permanent wedge issue between Southeast legislators,” he explained, because ferries would have still been needed to traverse upper Lynn Canal, taking service away from other locations in Southeast.

He said he hasn’t formed an opinion on Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline. He’d like to see more information, including “more solid commitments on who’s going to be buying the gas.”

Overall, Edwardson said he offers “continuity and experience” to Mendenhall Valley voters looking for stability in the Legislature.

“I like to make sure that people’s voices are heard and I’ll continue to do that in the legislature,” he said.

Primary profiles

House candidate Steve Handy seeks new mountaintop to climb

Andi Story seeks Democratic nomination for House seat from the Mendenhall Valley

Edwardson blazes independent’s path in upcoming primary

James Hart drops out of House race on eve of early voting

• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or 523-2258.

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