Les Gara attacked Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who attacked former Gov. Bill Walker, who generally decided against mentioning Charlie Pierce.
A debate Wednesday night featuring all four candidates for Alaska’s governor, a rarity during the campaign, offered a rushed collection of quips, attacks and soundbites during the 55-minute forum (plus an intermission to show a video explaining ranked choice voting) hosted and broadcast by Alaska Public Media, KTOO and Alaska’s News Source. All four candidates are scheduled to debate again Saturday morning at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, which will be webcast live.
The rapid-fire barrage of questions from moderators on Wednesday saw the candidates speaking rapidly to get as many words as possible into the maximum allowed response time of one minute, although it was less for many of the questions.
As such, the audience got more impressions than in-depth portraits from the candidates:
– Dunleavy, a Republican, defended his first term and responded to many questions by talking about various ways he could relate to residents’ struggles. He noted the statewide crime rate reached a 41-year low (which Walker pointed out coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic), this year’s Permanent Fund Dividend was the largest ever (not adjusted for inflation), and the state budget was reduced except for education and safety.
– Democrat Les Gara, a former state lawmaker, spent the majority of his time attacking Dunleavy with repeated phrases such as “he has left 50 communities without police officers” and “biggest disaster in Alaska history” when referring to a proposal in the governor’s first budget to cut education funding by about a quarter. Gara said he supports having education funding keep pace with inflation, and favors paying for that and other services he supports by eliminating more than $1 billion in annual tax credits on production to oil companies.
– Walker, an independent, split his time between defending controversial aspects of his term in office and attacking Dunleavy with lines such as “You have literally taken a wrecking ball to our state.” The former governor called his actions such as reducing PFDs in order to fund state government responsible public policy and challenged the current governor’s crime rate claims by citing a list of offenses where Alaska is among the highest-ranking states.
– Pierce, a Republican who finished a distant fourth in the August primary has been largely invisible during the campaign until recently, emphasized a platform to the right of Dunleavy’s — such as openly supporting a constitutional convention and restricting transgender bathroom access. The former Kenai mayor also questioned if voter approval of the state’s new ranked choice voting was legitimate and proposed reducing the number of school districts to help resolve funding issues. He attracted virtually no notice or engagement from the other candidates, although Dunleavy encourage voters to rank Pierce second.
A slightly more in-depth and revealing portion of the debate occurred when each candidate was allowed to ask another candidate a question, with the response followed by a rebuttal from the questioner and then a 30-second period for the other candidates to comment. Gara and Walker directed their accusatory questions at Dunleavy, while both Republicans targeted Walker.
Pierce began the questioning by asking Walker about stating he would repeat past actions to reduce future PFDs if necessary to balance the budget.
“I’ve not said that,” Walker responded. “This is the result of not having a fiscal plan. Going through $20 billion in savings is how we’ve kept things afloat. My goal is to make sure we have a sustainable dividend that we can possibly have, but not at the expense of other services.”
Gara followed the exchange by stating “the reason we don’t have a strong PFD is that this governor has given away our oil wealth,” while Dunleavy asserted “the PFD was going well until the Walker administration. Our Permanent Fund itself has grown tremendously under my administration.”
Dunleavy veered from the common debate topics such as crime and education to ask Walker the cryptic question “is anything about your relationship with the Chinese government that you regret today?” The inquiry referred to a a multibillion-dollar natural gas pipeline agreement signed in 2017 between Alaska and China that Dunleavy scrapped in 2019.
Walker noted former President Donald Trump, who has conditionally endorsed Dunleavy, was an enthusiastic supporter of the project at the time.
“Things have (since) gone sour with China,” Walker said. “Would I do it again today? Of course not.”
Dunleavy, in his rebuttal, claimed the Biden administration is antagonistic toward Alaska when it comes to resource production. Gara, stating “national parties don’t get Alaska,” emphasized he’s a Democrat who favors resource development. Pierce said “I don’t have any comments.”
Gara’s question challenged Dunleavy on his proposed cuts to education and current teacher shortage. The governor, offering an anecdote about being able to relate without addressing the substance of the accusation, stated “I know education. I know how to manage school districts” and blamed districts for current problems.
“This is really a management by management issue,” he said.
In response, Gara said “the governor says he knows education — maybe he does — but he doesn’t do education.”
Walker noting among other things Dunleavy’s absence from most of the candidate forums during the campaign, asked the incumbent “why do you want this job?”
Dunleavy’s response repeated the theme the state is in better shape now than during Walker’s term,
“The reason I haven’t been at these debates is because I have a job,” Dunleavy said. “How many debates do you need to get your point across?”
Walker said work also kept him busy in office, but he showed up for forums and said “it’s incredibly disrespectful” to the regions of the state that hosted events not attended by Dunleavy. Gara suggested Dunleavy was slighting residents in another sense because “his biggest export for this state has been people.” Pierce strayed from the topic by commenting about environmental restrictions, and alleging “we’ve got a federal government that’s acting against Alaska and we need to get it under control.”
The debate ended with a slight twist on a familiar theme from most of the previous forums that have featured only Walker and Gara, with both candidates urging voters to rank their counterpart second on the ballot. On Wednesday, the two Republicans made a similar plea in their closing statements to their supporters, a strategic move on Dunleavy’s part in particular since the most recent survey shows he can get a majority of votes in the ranked choice process if he wins over Pearce’s first-choice supporters.
”Rank me one and Charlie said,” Dunleavy said.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com