Former member of the Alaska House of Representatives Les Gara was in Juneau on Friday, April 8, 2022, and met with the Empire to talk about what sets him apart from the other candidates in the race for governor. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Former member of the Alaska House of Representatives Les Gara was in Juneau on Friday, April 8, 2022, and met with the Empire to talk about what sets him apart from the other candidates in the race for governor. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

In governor’s race, Gara says he stands apart

Former lawmaker contrasts his own record with rivals

There’s a crowded field in this year’s race for governor of Alaska, but former state lawmaker Les Gara says he stands apart.

“I’m the only candidate in this race who hasn’t cut public education,” Gara said in an interview with the Empire. “I’m the only candidate in this race that has always proposed legislation that says education funding should stay up with inflation.”

Gara served as a member of the Alaska House of Representatives from Anchorage for 16 years and points to his record as a lawmaker as what sets him apart from other gubernatorial hopefuls, including Gov. Mike Dunleavy and former Gov. Bill Walker, both of whom Gara worked with as a legislator.

“I’m the only candidate that believes our LGBTQ+ community deserves equal rights,” Gara said, pointing to legislation he co-sponsored while in the House that would have banned discrimination based on gender or sexual identity.

Gara said he’s also the only candidate to support access to abortion, something the Walker campaign disputes. Walker, who sought office as a Republican prior to a successful bid for office as an independent, is again running as an independent. At an abortion rights rally in October, Walker’s pick for Lieutenant Governor, Heidi Drygas, said their administration would never interfere with a woman’s right to choose. But Gara said Walker’s record on abortion as governor told a different story.

“When Gov. Walker was governor he sued to block Medicaid coverage of abortions just like the Legislature did two days ago in the House,” Gara said, referring to an amendment passed by House members during debate on the state’s operating budget.

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“Gov. Walker is a very nice man but he is a principled, pro-life, anti-abortion governor’s candidate, he always has been,” Gara said. “I can’t turn myself into a pro-life person by promising I would become one. I’m pro-choice, and I can’t blame Gov. Walker for not being able to violate his own pro-life principles.”

In a statement, Walker said as governor he would follow the Alaska State Constitution, which has affirmed a woman’s right to privacy.

“I will oppose any legislation that is unconstitutional and veto any legislation that makes it to my desk,” Walker said.

Dunleavy, who is Catholic, has repeatedly stated his anti-abortion position, and in 2020 an Anchorage Superior Court found his administration had unconstitutionally used his line-item veto power to punish the Alaska Supreme Court for ruling in favor of access to abortion.

Gara —currently the only Democrat in the governor’s race — said he believes in equal access to opportunity for Alaskans and the roughly $1.3 billion the state pays in oil tax credits could easily fund a robust state budget. That includes funding for education, the University of Alaska, a construction budget and a sizeable Permanent Fund Dividend.

“You can’t give away your oil wealth to the oil industry on the one hand and think that you can for schools or a university, or a marine highway or a (Permanent Fund Dividend) on the other’ Gara said. “You have to have the ability to build a state you have to get a fair share for our oil which the constitution requires.”

Gara was in Juneau last week to meet with Alaskans —not to raise money, he said, as state law prohibits gubernatorial candidates from fundraising in Juneau while the Legislature is in session — and said the Alaska Marine Highway and sustainable fisheries were top of mind for local voters.

“I’ve always defended the marine highway because I believe in equity across the state whether you’re a coastal community, or an interior community or a rural community, people deserve the right to equal opportunity,” Gara said. “You can’t create jobs if you don’t have the infrastructure for jobs.”

Aside from Dunleavy and Walker, Gara is facing off in the governor’s race against Charlie Pierce, a Republican and Mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough; Billy Toien, a Libertarian, and Bruce Walden, also a Republican.

This will be the first governor’s election in Alaska to use the state’s new ranked-choice voting system, which Gara said allowed Alaskans to vote their conscience and not out of political consideration. With ranked-choice voting, Gara said there was no danger of splitting votes.

“Gov. Walker and I will not split votes in this election, we’ll share votes, so most of his voters will choose me as their second choice, most of my voters will choose Gov. Walker as their second choice,” Gara said. “I’ll choose Gov. Walker as my second choice, but that means those votes do not go to Mike Dunleavy.”

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

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