Editor’s note: Early voting for the Aug. 21 statewide primary election began Monday. Anyone who is registered to vote can cast a ballot at the State Office Building or the Division of Elections regional headquarters in Mendenhall Mall. As early voting begins, the Empire is publishing profiles of the six candidates who are in contested primary elections for Juneau House seats. A special voter guide covering all primary candidates will be published on the Sunday before the primary election day.
Tom Morphet used to write the news. Now, he’s trying to make it.
Morphet is one of three candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in House District 33. (A fourth candidate has ended his campaign.)
Morphet, who visited the Empire last week as part of an extended campaign stay in Juneau, said his political career isn’t much different from his work as a reporter and owner of the Chilkat Valley News in Haines.
“You know, you’re representing people. You’re finding things out. You’re making arguments, and that’s what I’ve done,” Morphet said. “That’s why there’s a lot of parallels.”
House District 33 covers Skagway, Haines, Gustavus, Klukwan, Excursion Inlet, Douglas and downtown Juneau, but Morphet is the only district candidate not from Douglas Island. The other two Democratic candidates (Steve Handy and Sara Hannan) and independent Chris Dimond (who will face the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 6 general election) are from Douglas Island.
Morphet is unapologetic and passionate about his belief that the district needs a vocal progressive to push issues in the Alaska Legislature. House District 33 is one of the few in the state that has more registered Democrats than Republicans (nonpartisan and unaligned voters are still a majority, as they are in most Alaska House districts).
“I think that the progressive banner needs to be hoisted and somebody has to run with it because it’s a good message and it’s a worthy message. It’s all the hope there is for a whole damn world and we can’t be defensive about it. We have to fight for it,” Morphet said.
In some ways, his attitude resembles that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York City Democrat who defeated a 10-term moderate in a Congressional primary earlier this year. Ocasio-Cortez has said that Democrats in “safe” districts should be doing more to consider solutions traditionally associated with the political left.
Morphet was elected to the Haines Borough Assembly in 2016 and said he has seen the state fail to hold up its obligations to small towns like Haines. A state trooper assigned to the town was withdrawn; the state has told the borough to take over maintenance on roads and bridges; public health services have been cut back. Even the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, which Morphet volunteered for, has disappeared after state support dried up.
“It just irks me to death because the state has enormous resources, and to dump its obligations on small communities is nothing short of bullying,” Morphet said.
He pointed out that the state funded the trooper post in Haines before the Prudhoe Bay oil discovery and argued that there is no reason the state should not fund it today.
Discussing the debate over the size of the Permanent Fund Dividend, Morphet said it would be great to receive a $3,000 dividend, but if Alaskans can’t get out of their driveways because roads aren’t plowed, and if kids are failing to get an education because schools aren’t funded, you have to ask if it’s worth it.
“I mean, the whole idea of government is that collectively we can do much more than we can do individually,” he said.
Morphet’s passion has caused him problems before. In Haines, he was censured by his fellow Assembly members after he revealed the names of Haines Police officers who had been subject to public complaints. Borough code and police employee contracts bar the release of those names.
Last year, he was among three Assembly members who were the targets of a recall effort. All three were retained on the Assembly.
Talking to the Empire, Morphet said he “gladly accepted” the censure and “I think I’ve atoned for what I did wrong.”
Morphet is opposed to construction of a road north from Juneau and believes improved ferry service is needed in northern Southeast.
“My standard line is that the traditional ferry system was built by the generation of engineers that took us to the moon,” Morphet said, adding that those ferries were built before the trans-Alaska Pipeline System and continue to work well. “I believe that is the model that maybe we should try to emulate. … I don’t know that it can be improved.”
The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation may seek additional funding from the Legislature next year, but Morphet said he thinks “the market’s not there” for gas from a trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline.
Morphet supports a payroll tax to balance Alaska’s $700 million budget deficit and it’s the best way to collect money from out-of-state workers.
“You’ve got to tax where the money is,” he said, but suggested he’d be open to modifications that capture income from investments.
Morphet said he supports keeping an expanded Medicaid program (the program was expanded by the current governor and could be reversed under a new one) and believes it’s important to provide education, job skills training and activities for kids in order to reduce rates of drug and alcohol addiction.
“You know, I was an editor and reporter in Haines for 30 years, and I think the town learned that I can throw punches but I can also be very fair. And I’m not quick to anger. I am passionate. And I believe that life is a short proposition. We have a narrow window to get things done,” Morphet said.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at email@example.com or 523-2258.