Jesse Kiehl has worked in the Alaska Senate for 18 years. Now, he’s trying to become a senator.
During a year in which none of Juneau’s three lawmakers is running for re-election, Kiehl may be the closest thing to an incumbent. But in a Thursday afternoon interview with the Empire, Kiehl said voters shouldn’t see him as simply representing the establishment.
“With the entire delegation from northern Southeast changing over this year,” he said, “I think I can bring some experience and relationships and put them to work right away.”
Born in Anchorage in 1976, Kiehl attended Steller Secondary School and left to attend Whitman College in Washington state. Soon after his graduation with a degree in politics and theater, he moved to Juneau to work in the administration of then-Gov. Tony Knowles as part of the Department of Education and Early Development. After two years he became a staffer for Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau. When Elton left office in 2009, then-Gov. Sarah Palin appointed Dennis Egan to succeed him. Kiehl stayed on as a staffer and kept the job until his resignation this summer. By the time he quit, he was one of the most experienced and highest-paid employees in the Capitol.
That experience doesn’t mean he’s a shoe-in for the job. Independent Don Etheridge, a former labor lobbyist, is also running for the Senate seat.
“There’s no career ladder; there’s only asking voters if they think you can do the job,” Kiehl said.
While Kiehl worked closely with Egan and Elton, he said voters shouldn’t expect him to do exactly the same things as either.
“We’re different people, and we didn’t agree on everything,” he said.
For example, Kiehl and Egan disagreed on the Juneau Access Project before Gov. Bill Walker canceled it. Egan was in favor, Kiehl opposed.
“I’ve never convinced either one of them to vote my way on everything,” Kiehl said.
Two years after joining Egan’s staff, Kiehl embarked on his own political campaign. He was elected to the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly in 2011, defeating Brad Fluetsch. He was most recently re-elected in 2016 and is prevented by term limits from running again.
He is married to Karen Allen, and they have two daughters, Tsifira and Adara.
Kiehl said he is driven to fix problems. It’s why he served on the Assembly and decided to work in the Legislature.
“Some issues we’ll probably be working on forever,” he said. “Other issues, you can work on in limited increments. But the fundamental thing about this job is trying to do a better job for Alaska. It’s about trying to get government to work better. It matters. It matters to people’s lives.”
When it comes to his philosophy on government, Kiehl said there’s “no more efficient way to run an economy than capitalism,” but “you also have to make sure people are treated fairly.”
He used an analogy, explaining that government’s role is comparable to safety equipment at a factory: “Robots are incredibly efficient. They will also tear you in half and not feel bad. You can’t wrap everyone in chainmail and bubble wrap, but you need to have some safety features in that factory.”
If elected to a four-year Senate term, Kiehl said his top priority will be to back a long-term fiscal plan for Alaska. That will likely include an income tax, he expects.
“In the very long term, oil won’t pay all our bills forever, and any time we’re willing to deal with reality, we acknowledge that,” he said.
“Absent these temporary (oil) price spikes, we’re headed back to the crisis at rocket speed,” he said.
Convincing the Legislature to approve a tax will likely take more than one year, and Kiehl said his top priority for 2019, if elected, is getting the Legislature to revive the state’s pension program.
Doing so would offer an incentive to new Alaska State Troopers and teachers, Kiehl said.
“I also think our public safety issues need some serious, serious work,” he said. “The state has not built the addiction treatment that was supposed to be part of criminal justice reform.”
Though he is running as the Democratic candidate, Kiehl said he believes in an approach that “is absolutely about bringing everybody together.”
“I don’t want to see the Alaska Legislature go the way I see Congress going right now. You can’t go to Congress and make a difference as a single legislator, but in the Alaska Legislature, you can,” he said.
Election profiles schedule
Ahead of the Nov. 6 general election, the Empire is publishing profiles of the six local candidates who will appear on the ballot. One will run each day. Here’s when you can expect to see a story:
• Oct. 18: Don Etheridge
• Oct. 19: Chris Dimond
• Oct. 21: Jesse Kiehl
• Oct. 22: Jerry Nankervis
• Oct. 23: Andi Story
• Oct. 24: Sara Hannan