The three candidates seeking Alaska’s U.S. House seat in the Aug. 16 special election squeezed into the close quarters of a Juneau radio station studio for a forum during the noon hour Monday. But their positions politically were often far from close in a discussion dominated by economic issues including inflation, energy costs and resource development.
Republicans Nick Begich III and Sarah Palin were unsurprisingly more aligned with each other than with Democrat Mary Peltola in terms of board policy. But all differed on specifics such as the biggest single issue facing the country and Southeast Alaska, and when they did agree on problems there were often differences about their causes and solutions.
Each lived up to their stereotypes to a degree — Begich as the establishment Republican (despite a family with a diverse history in state politics), Palin as the Donald Trump-backed rebel, and Peltola as the relatively liberal and longtime Alaska Native village state lawmaker. Each also had at least one “off” moment, but no “gaffes” likely to show up in national headlines or viral Tweets.
Biggest national concern
Palin cited inflation as the biggest national issue and, while avoiding the “drill, baby drill” slogan she’s revived from her 2008 speech as a vice-presidential nominee during her current campaign, did say “all we have to do is turn on the spigot in Alaska” to resolve its economic woes by “developing our God-given resources.”
Begich, stating Alaska is the second most federally dependent state in the U.S., said the rising threat of deficit spending is his top concern. As with Palin, he agreed increasing production of energy resources is important, but emphasized other industries as well and said “we have got to add more legs to the stool for the state of Alaska to make sure we are prosperous and can create the generational wealth Alaska does have the potential to create.”
Peltola, while agreeing with Palin that inflation is the top national issue of concern, took a markedly different stance on solutions. She praised the Inflation Reduction Act currently being debated by Congress — which among other things would allow Medicare’s new abilities to negotiate drug prices, penalize drug companies for increasing prices faster than inflation, and impose a 15% minimum tax on certain corporations — and “lastly we’ve got to increase the minimum wage and (keep) increasing it according to the cost of living in Alaska.”
Biggest Southeast Alaska concern
Inflation was also Palin’s top concern when asked specifically about Southeast issues, but she pivoted to her time as governor between 2006 and 2009 when the state was engulfed in a political corruption scandal involving various lawmakers, oil industry executives and others.
“When the government is cleaning up corruption I still hear a lot of concern about crony capitalism, to make sure we are conducting business and developing resources fairly and ethically,” she said, adding “I have none of those special interests clawing on me.”
That statement, however, came shortly after Palin’s “turn on the spigot” remark when she claimed Alaska has “the least amount of corruption in state government.”
The Alaska Marine Highway System was the top Southeast Alaska issued mentioned by Peltola, who said “we’ve really seen that dismantled the past few years and I’m glad to see there’s relief for it in the infrastructure bill.”
She also mentioned energy projects, noting some communities such as Juneau have relatively affordable power due to hyroelectric facilities, but others are facing crippling prices even though some such as Hoonah and Angoon have projects that are “shovel-ready.”
“Availability of workforce” is the issue Begich said he’s hearing most about in the region, especially during the past couple of months due to the tourism season. He also cited the ferry system, stating reliable and regular access is necessary in instances such as the Southeast Alaska State Fair where getting between Juneau and Haines was problematic.
“It would have also been possible if we had a road,” he said.
Ranked choice rankles some
The special election, on the same day as the primary for the general election, is to fill the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s seat. The primary will also select four candidates to compete in the November election for the upcoming full two-year term under the state’s new ranked choice system in which voters select up to their four favorite candidates in order of preference.
Begich said he’s not a fan of ranked choice, which he called a “national experiment” funded by “dark money,” since “what it does is it eliminates a true primary.”
“We’re effectively running a primary and a general election at the same time,” he said. I think that creates some counter-productivity” including keeping voters from closely parsing candidates’ positions.
Palin expressed the strongest opposition, as might be expected since polls show she could get more first-choice votes than a candidate such as Peltola, yet lose when the subsequent votes are added until one candidate gets a majority. She said it will mean “Dominion computers” counting ballots in remote villages instead of people doing it by hand, and “the intention is to split voters so less popular candidates can slip in and be representatives for Alaska.”
“I think it will result in some voter suppression, unfortunately,” she said. “Too many people are saying ‘I don’t want any part of this.’”
Peltola, in contrast, said she is “very hopeful about the outcome of ranked choice voting.”
“I think that’s because I’m not a very partisan person, and I think what the primaries do is get people on the very far ends of the political spectrum and what we end up with is a group of legislators that cannot come together at the table,” she said.
Local issues and connections
Begich and Palin were also in agreement the so-called “Roadless Rule” for the Tongass National Forest needs to be repealed. Peltola, while stating she’s “fiercely committed to local control over any project that impacts Alaskans,” said she also doesn’t necessarily think the federal government should fund roads for private companies, environmental impacts on fish and old-growth forests need to be considered, and renewable energy resources developed.
All, of course, found ways to emphasize their personal ties and/or advocacy to Southeast Alaska during the forum hosted by KINY and broadcast live to radio stations throughout the region and streamed on YouTube.
Palin noted her father moved to Skagway to teach shortly after she was born, Peltola noted two of her children will be attending Southeast Alaska schools during the coming year, and Begich said he’s made up to a dozen visits to Juneau and many others to regional communities during the past two years.
As for odd moments by the candidates, Peltola got off-track and asked to have a question repeated about top goals for helping Southeast Alaska businesses. Palin touted being an outsider and “30 years of involvement in Alaska politics” in the same answer about being the best-qualified candidate, and closed her remarks by stating “life is too short” for meanness and partisanship after spending much of the forum and concluding statement doing just that. Begich, as the last to deliver closing remarks, made his case by citing support from more than 70 prominent elected officials, former party leaders and other people of importance.
“I think our campaign will continue to be grass roots all the way through November,” he added.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com.