Gubernatorial candidate Les Gara, right, announced as his running mate Jessica Cook, left, an Eagle River school teacher, at a news conference in Anchorage on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. (Courtesy photo / Erin Kirkland)

Gubernatorial candidate Les Gara, right, announced as his running mate Jessica Cook, left, an Eagle River school teacher, at a news conference in Anchorage on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. (Courtesy photo / Erin Kirkland)

Gara announces running mate in gubernatorial race

Schoolteacher Jessica Cook joins Democratic ticket

Gubernatorial candidate Les Gara announced on Monday that teacher Jessica Cook will be his running mate, telling reporters she shared his vision of Alaska’s future.

“I’ve known her as she’s been an advocate for children and schools,” Gara said at an Anchorage news conference. “She understands her way around the political system and is not a fan of inaction.”

Cook is currently a sixth grade teacher at Alpenglow Elementary in Eagle River, a position she said she would remain in until the end of the school year. During the conference, Cook and Gara emphasized a shared belief in equal opportunity regardless of the conditions one was born into and that Alaska was no longer a place people wanted to stay. Cook said Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s cuts to the state budget in 2019 had damaged the state’s ability to retain workers and their families.

“Cuts like that do not build a better future,” Cook said. “People are going to leave because they don’t have the security in the people that are educating their children.”

[Anchorage rep announces bid for open Senate seat]

Gara said he’s known Cook for 15 years and shares many of his concerns for Alaska. At several points in the conference, Gara cited Alaska’s high rates of worker turnover and blamed Dunleavy’s policies for worsening the issue. In addition to criticizing the governor’s cuts to state spending — education in particular — Gara said the state was giving away money in the form of oil tax credits to large corporations.

“Jessica has lived her adult life creating opportunity, she’s done that as a teacher, as a mother of three, as a grandmother of five,” Gara said. “Alaska’s future is personal to her.”

Cook said she was born in Alaska and raised in Eagle River in part by an adoptive family and in part by her grandparents after her mother died when Cook was 3. According to the Gara campaign Cook has been a teacher for 20 years and holds two master’s degrees in education.

Gara is currently the only Democratic candidate for governor but Cook said he didn’t ask about party affiliation until after she had agreed to be his running mate. Cook said she was undeclared for many years but has been a registered Democrat for a few years now. Gara said he wanted his ticket to reflect the diversity of Alaska and that it would’ve created a knot in his stomach to have announced “two white guys from Anchorage.”

Cook, who identifies as multiethnic, said she’s half Black and half white, but “in both of those halves reside many different ethnicities.”

With Gara having named a running mate, Dunleavy remains the only gubernatorial candidate not to have a lieutenant governor on his ticket. Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer announced in December he will not seek re-election and the Dunleavy campaign has yet to announce a replacement.

The other candidates for governor and their running mates are: Libertarians Billy Toien and Shirley Rainbolt; Republicans Bruce Walden and Tanya Lange; independents Bill Walker and Heidi Drygas and Republicans Chris Kurka and Paul Hueper.

Gara said at the press conference he and Cook were the only candidates to be pro-choice. As governor, Walker allowed an education bill to become law without his signature that prevented abortion providers from teaching sex-ed classes in Alaska schools. The portion of that bill establishing the prohibition was written by Dunleavy, then a senator. However, at a rally in October 2021, Drygas told a crowd in Juneau her administration would not interfere with a woman’s right to choose.

Cook and Gara both stressed the importance of keeping people in the state and supportive state services such as schools, public safety and the Alaska Marine Highway System.

“Les and I care about Alaka’s kids, everyone deserves a chance to be successful, regardless of race, or wealth or poverty,” Cook said. “We need to keep our training and our resources here.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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