Justin Parish came out swinging in Thursday night’s Juneau Votes statehouse debate at the University of Alaska Southeast.
At several points during the hour-and-a-half debate, the Democrat seeking the House District 34 seat accosted his opponent, Republican Rep. Cathy Muñoz, for being part of the “shameless” majority in the Alaska House of Representatives.
“The current majority leadership has proven itself profoundly irresponsible,” Parish said at one point as he laid into Muñoz and the House Republican majority for failing to produce a sustainable budget after five special legislative sessions in two years.
But every shot Parish took at Muñoz and the Republican majority was repaid by her supporters during the question and answer portion of the debate.
Throughout the evening, debate moderators asked two dozen questions ranging from the state’s precarious fiscal standing to transboundary mining. They alternated between candidates, giving each a chance to respond first.
The moderators, James Brooks of the Empire and Matt Miller of KTOO-FM, allowed Muñoz and Parish to respond to one another’s answers. Both candidates took advantage of the opportunity, but Parish fired back more frequently and was noticeably more aggressive.
The debate played out in somewhat of a reversal of the national presidential race, with the Republican Muñoz representing the experienced political insider and Parish, the Democrat, playing the insurgent outsider who believes his strength is that he hasn’t had a hand in an institution he says is failing.
When asked about school funding, Muñoz cited “consistent” support for increasing the base student allocation, the amount of money the state gives to school districts per student. Parish, who works at Floyd Dryden Middle School, had already responded to the question, but he didn’t shy away from the chance to get another dig in.
“The majority leadership has proven itself a consistent enemy of public education, and that’s a problem,” Parish said.
When asked if she cared to respond, Muñoz declined.
But after an hour, the moderators turned the debate over to the audience for questions, and once Muñoz’s supporters were allowed to tap in, Parish’s evening took a rocky turn.
Three different audience members, at least two of whom have contributed to Muñoz’s campaign, asked Parish for his thoughts on the FRANK Initiative, an acronym that’s not well known and stands for Fiscally Responsible Alaskans Needing Knowledge. The initiative — which was introduced in the late ’70s, repealed in the early ’80s, and reinstated by ballot measure in the early ’90s — prevents the Legislature from spending any money to move the state capital until a commission can tell voters how much the move might cost.
Each time someone asked about the initiative, it became increasingly apparent that the question was meant to reveal Parish as inexperienced and ill-prepared.
Parish skirted around the question the first time. He admitted he didn’t know what the initiative was the second time, and he said he’d research it. The third time he was asked to talk about the initiative, Parish jokingly answered by rephrasing the question.
Though the audience frankly raked Parish over the coals about the initiative, he attempted to pivot and call out Muñoz, claiming she hadn’t done enough to stop capital creep.
At one point, Muñoz said she would consider joining a bipartisan majority, should one develop in the Legislature.
“My priority is Juneau,” she said. “I’m going to join the cause that best serves Juneau.”
This answer was met by light applause from some audience members, but Parish wasn’t impressed. He responded saying that the majority, of which Muñoz is a part, “has been pretty willing to throw Juneau under the bus.”
The Legislature, he argued, hadn’t done enough to stop high-paying state jobs from being relocated to Anchorage.
In her strongest rebuttal of the night, Muñoz said “that’s just not true,” explaining that she had supported Capitol renovations and the construction of the new Department of Fish and Game building on Douglas, and the State Library, Archives, and Museum. All of those projects, she said, brought construction jobs to Juneau.
The differences between Muñoz and Parish didn’t end there. They disagreed on most points, including whether Gov. Bill Walker had the legal authority to halve this year’s Permanent Fund Dividend using his veto power.
“I think it was wise to keep as many of our financial resources intact going forward,” Muñoz said, supporting Walker’s decision. She added that she doesn’t support the lawsuit challenging the veto.
Parish said he supports the lawsuit even though he hates that money is being spent on it.
Both Parish and Muñoz agreed that the Legislature needs to come up with a sustainable fiscal plan to ensure the PFD is safe from the governor’s red pen come next year. Rep. Sam Kito III, the Democratic incumbent running unopposed to hold the House District 33 seat, agreed on this point, too.
Kito participated in the debate, but because he doesn’t have an opponent, he was restricted by moderators to answering only five questions.
During a lightning round, in which moderators asked each of the candidates simple questions, Muñoz said she supports Gov. Mike Pence for the presidency, not Republican candidate Donald Trump. Pence is not running for president. Parish said he supported Sen. Bernie Sanders, but he now supports former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Thursday’s debate was recorded by both the Empire and KTOO, which plans to rebroadcast it online and on the radio. The video broadcast will be posted on the Empire’s Facebook page. KTOO plans to rebroadcast the debate at 7 p.m. Oct. 20.
Election Day is Nov. 8, but early voting begins Oct. 24 at the State Office Building and the Mendenhall Mall.