The lone competitive race for Juneau’s three seats in the Alaska State Legislature is a quiet affair, according to the challenger who’s been essentially invisible during most of the campaign cycle against an entrenched incumbent. But if elected the challenger is quite likely to make a loud noise compared to what Juneau residents are accustomed to from their all-Democratic delegation.
Darrell Harmon, a commercial truck driver and instructor, declared his candidacy against two-term state Rep. Sara Hannan in June for the newly drawn district representing downtown, Douglas, Lemon Creek and parts of the Mendenhall Valley. He’s expressed skepticism about things such as election integrity and COVID-19 restrictions, but said in an interview Oct. 19, that his primary reason for running is about giving voters a choice.
“I’ve been pretty quiet about the campaign,” he said. “I’m not really trying to change any minds. I’m giving people an opportunity is what I’m doing. If I wasn’t running she would be uncontested.”
Harmon said he’s disappointed the other local races for seats held by District 3 Rep. Andi Story and state Sen. Jesse Kiehl are uncontested. In the state’s official election guide for the region both of the unchallenged candidates emphasized a sustainable state budget as their first priority.
Hannan was the dominant choice of voters in the nonpartisan Aug. 16 primary in which up to four candidates can advance to the general election, receiving 83% of votes cast to 17% for Harmon. In an interview Aug. 24, she said her efforts this campaign cycle have largely been focused on other races.
“I’m spending most of my campaign making sure Alaska has a better House,” she said.
The House currently has 21 Republicans, 15 Democrats and four independent members, but during recent sessions has formed bipartisan majorities due to establishment Republicans being unable to agree on coalitions with more conservative members of the party.
The post-census redistricting process completed earlier this year following court challenges reduces the size of Hannan’s district by incorporating small communities in the northern Southeast Panhandle into the newly defined District 3. She said she doesn’t expect that to change her focus or duties if reelected.
“I’m still going to be concerned about ferry service for the whole region,” she said.
Transportation is also a top issue cited by Harmon, but his emphasis — one of three issues listed on his campaign website — is highway safety.
“It’s the one thing I can say I’m as close to an expert as possible,” he said. “Highway safety and highway traffic is the greatest threat to the Alaska family.”
When asked what a state representative can do to address such concerns, Harmon said “we can work together at the state level to encourage safe behavior for our youth.”
Both candidates reference various forms of help for younger residents high in their platforms. Harmon said those include more state-funded programs promoting job retention for youths and vulnerable population, as well as efforts to help those burdened by restrictions due to the pandemic.
“I think it would be appropriate to offset the required lockdowns the state has been under the past couple of years,” he said. “How that happens I don’t have a crystal clear idea. (But) the negative side effects for being isolated is potentially very devastating for a lot of people.”
Hannan, who lists education first among the three issues highlighted on her campaign website, said her concerns include disparities in student performance based home stability factors such as on income, and assistance for childcare and intervention are among her legislative goals. Education — and the possibility of existing student rights and other provisions being removed — are also among the reasons she opposes a ballot measure to hold a state constitutional convention.
While a constitutional convention isn’t among issues Harmon is highlighting, he said he’s open to the idea.
“I haven’t jumped on a bandwagon about it,” he said. “I’m not afraid of having a constitutional convention because it’s a regular part of our process.”
Both candidates largely express agreement a balanced approach is needed for a sustainable budget, with Harmon agreeing with the oft-repeated mantra of some lawmakers “we can not cut our way to a balanced budget.” Hannan said she voted in 2017 to support an income tax and, on another tax bill not purely related to revenue, said one of her priority bills if reelected is reintroducing a tax on vaping products that was vetoed during the last legislative session by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
Hannan said she’s also favors a less punitive corrections system that provides health care and rehabilitation for people needing it, noting “if the punishments for drug crimes stopped addiction we wouldn’t have a problem.”
An area of enforcement cited by Harmon is election security, responding to an Alaska Beacon questionnaire with “the state needs to take steps to audit the voter rolls and audit the voting results. Simple.” When asked during his interview why he’s concerned he said he observed a state Senate committee meeting where witnesses said machines aren’t accurate
“I can’t be sure,” he said when asked if he believes there were errors or fraud in recent state elections. “I only believe it’s possible.”
KTOO reported in June that Harmon’s Facebook page had public posts “espousing COVID-19 misinformation, sympathies for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and disparaging Democrats and medical authorities — along with a lot of apolitical, do-it-yourself videos.” Harmon, during his interview last week, acknowledged privatizing the posts.
“If I opened it up the public would see all the posts I’ve ever posted about everything possible,” he said. “It’s just a bulletin board that people reply to. Nobody’s missing anything. I would like people to think of me as competent driving instructor, not a blogger.”
Recent posts on Hannan’s Facebook page span a wide variety of topics from a repost of a Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids ad to supporting the bestowing Alaska Native names on state peaks to updates on local news to a soup recipe.
When asked why she believes there are few contested local races — including all of the Juneau Assembly and Juneau Board of Education seats open in this month’s municipal election — Hannan said trying to emerge from struggles of the pandemic in a deeply divisive political climate is likely playing a large role.
“It’s a pretty caustic environment and it’s not being described as a fun next few years,” she said.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com