Mark Begich is trying to defeat Mike Dunleavy, but he first had to beat Juneau’s morning fog.
Alaska’s Democratic governor candidate arrived in Juneau Friday on a campaign stop abbreviated by a weather delay.
He toured Bartlett Regional Hospital, was interviewed by radio station KINY-AM and made an appearance at Thunder Mountain High School before attending an evening fundraiser at IBEW Local 1547.
“Alaska does not have a long-term vision,” he said at Thunder Mountain, suggesting the state needs a sustainable fiscal plan to balance its budget. “It’s kind of a never-ending repeat play.”
Begich is in a close race with Republican candidate Dunleavy, and the two men shared a flight Friday morning as they left Anchorage following a Thursday evening debate hosted by KTUU-TV, Alaska Public Media and the Anchorage Daily News. Dunleavy was bound for Ketchikan and Begich for Juneau, but heavy fog prevented the flight from landing in the capital city.
After landing in Sitka, Begich jumped off the Alaska Airlines jet and caught a flight to Juneau on Harris Air rather than wait for Alaska Airlines to deliver him to the capital via Seattle.
His first stop was Bartlett Regional Hospital, where he entered the office of hospital CEO Chuck Bill with an outstretched hand.
Begich has made health care one of the defining issues of his campaign, using forums to contrast his positions with those of Dunleavy. Begich is a firm defender of Medicaid expansion, a program currently providing health care to nearly 45,000 Alaskans.
Incumbent Gov. Bill Walker unilaterally enacted Medicaid expansion with an executive order in 2015, and a new governor could revoke or reverse that executive order. Dunleavy opposed Medicaid expansion when he served in the Alaska Senate, and he has been noncommittal about maintaining it.
He has said the state needs to better manage all of Medicaid and has repeatedly said he believes Medicaid is overpaying for some services it provides.
At Bartlett on Friday, Begich supporters stopped him in the halls.
“I’m a Republican, and I’m going to vote for you,” said James Masse, who shook Begich’s hand in the hospital cafeteria.
Masse, who is a registered Republican in the state’s voter database, said to the Empire, “I was kind of baffled by Walker and everything, but I’m going to support Begich now. I’m just disgusted with Republicans nowadays. It’s just gone crazy.”
Masse was walking with Bert Bennett, whom voter records list as a member of the Alaskan Independence Party.
“I was surprised to hear them drop out, but on the other hand, I think it’ll be good for the Democratic side to pull together. I’m going to go with Begich,” Bennett said. “There’s things I don’t agree with him on, but he’s going to get with my vote.”
Leanne Griffin, who has worked at the hospital for 38 years, said she has been supporting Begich since he declared his intention to run for governor.
“I’m hoping Sen. Begich can manage to pull this off,” she said.
By 3 p.m., he was at Thunder Mountain and attending the sixth-period American government class of Valorie Ringle.
Ringle’s classroom served as the crossroads of Alaska politics for an afternoon, attracting Begich, all six Juneau legislative candidates, independent U.S. House candidate Alyse Galvin (who called in), and speakers for and against Ballot Measure 1.
Most of the students in the class aren’t old enough to vote, but as Democratic Alaska House candidate Sara Hannan explained, that doesn’t matter as much. She asked the students in the class if any of them were alive on Sept. 11, 2001, then explained how she was teaching a U.S. government class just like theirs.
“I remember saying to my seniors in government class that this is going to be a long-term response,” she said. “The things that government does today might impact you for the next 20 years or the next 40 years … maybe even 80 years, if you’re a centenarian.”
The class split into small groups. Begich ended up in the hands of Tristan Weissmuller and Briannah Letter, who asked him why he’s running as a Democrat.
Begich said he’s always been a Democrat and agrees with things the party stands for: women’s reproductive rights, a livable minimum wage and a well-supported public education system, he offered as three examples.
He told the students that just because someone is running as an independent, that doesn’t mean they won’t be a divisive figure. Individuals, not parties, decide the course of events.
“They all have the same capabilities to drive a wedge. The question is what are you going to do as an individual,” he said with a reference to President Donald Trump.
He then transitioned the conversation to Trump’s endorsement of Dunleavy.
“He got Trump. We got Portugal. The Man. I’ll take that any day,” Begich said.
Leaving Thunder Mountain, he said he’ll make up for his abbreviated visit with a return trip in one week.