Republican Nick Begich, left, responds to a question at Thursday's candidate forum for Alaska's U.S. House candidates, hosted by Southeast Conference in Ketchikan. Republican Sarah Palin participated in the forum by teleconference. Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables, right, acted as the moderator of the forum. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola was unable to participate in the forum but briefly provided an update to conference attendees remotely later in the day. (Sam Stockbridge / Ketchikan Daily News)

U.S. House candidates positive — to a point

Begich and Palin both clashed and found common ground in Ketchikan.

Newly sworn-in Congresswoman Mary Peltola wasn’t present, but the Democrat’s proclaimed positive campaign style was as Republican challengers Nick Begich III and Sarah Palin avoided their typical frequent attacks on each other during a candidate forum focusing on Southeast Alaska issues Thursday in Ketchikan.

For the first half of the hour-long event, at least.

The second half saw both revert to direct and indirect shots against the other and nationally prominent Democrats, including the most heated exchange of the four candidate forums hosted during the three-day Southeast Conference that started Tuesday. But also typical of the forums involving U.S. House candidates this election cycle, the two Republicans essentially agreed on most issues of substance despite their personal clashes.

Peltola, who was in a House floor session during the forum, connected by Zoom a couple hours later to spend a few minutes describing how she’s using “just nine days left for the U.S. House of Representatives (in their current calendar), a very tiny window to get some wins for Alaska.”

Palin and Begich claimed their own wins during the forum. The former frequently referred to her time as Alaska’s governor more than a decade ago, and the latter to his business experience and work for the late Rep. Don Young, whose term Peltola is filling following his death earlier this year. The three candidates are essentially engaged in a rematch following the special election in August. Also on the ballot will be Libertarian candidate Chris Bye, who finished far behind the top-three candidates in the regular primary.

While the two Republicans were mostly critical of federal government involvement in Alaska, both said they supported ongoing federal funding for Alaska Marine Highway System following a huge one-time infusion of money from the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“I absolutely am convinced the private sector can do everything else right,” Palin said, but government involvement in critical needs such as transportation is essential and “marine transportation is a road.”

The infrastructure bill includes $1 billion for “essential ferry service” largely targeted at Alaska, but Begich said a more sustained level of support needs to be enacted in regulations.

“I believe that in order to ensure the marine highway system is adequately financed and funded we need to make sure it’s a permanent part of how our highway funding formula is maintained at the federal level,” he said.

Begich and Palin continued their initial harmony by agreeing they disagreed with recent assessments there is $1 billion in untapped minerals in Southeast Alaska, with both stating the actual value is higher.

“I think it’s only at $1 billion because (the federal government) hasn’t done that inventory” for many years, Begich said. The most recent federal mineral values study for the region was conducted in 1991.

Palin, echoing a theme and phrases that would be repeated throughout the forum, said “ethical development of resources” will be her top priority in Congress.

“The federal government needs to get out of the way and allow Alaskans to do what they do best and that is develop our God-given natural resources,” she said.

But while Palin wants the federal government to stay away from many aspects of state policy, she voiced strong support for more regulation when it comes to enforcing fisheries-related matters.

“We need tougher regulation, we need spotters on the water…especially with foreign vessels,” she said, adding “Nick’s right that we don’t talk about it enough. We need some punishment. It’s typical federal government, all this talk about being tough and then letting people skate by.”

Begich said he also supports federal funding to support scientific research of the region’s fisheries, especially due to the number of issues related to stock variability. He also called dumping of bycatch a significant issue due to some “bad actors” among trawlers.

Their non-confrontational approach started to turn when asked about addressing tribal subsistence rights. Both agreed people living closest to resources who depend on them to survive should have rights granted via the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, but Begich disparaged President Joe Biden for the first time during the forum by declaring ANILCA is “being reinterpreted by the Biden administration as it relates to subsistence…they are attempting to close off hunting rights.”

Palin followed up with a more pointed attack in the next question about addressing opioid and fentanyl abuse.

“Fentanyl is getting here because of open borders, because of Democrats in Congress who don’t care about border,” she said, adding she believes “every state now is a border state.”

Begich said imposing far harsher punishments for suppliers of the drugs is needed.

“There are many places around the world where the penalty for dealing these substances is extremely high, all the way up to capital punishment,” he said, adding suppliers of drugs are committing murder by “destroying people and families.”

The two candidates, in addition to their harsh comments about Biden and congressional Democrats during the remainder of the forum, also turned their fire on each other beginning with a question about waivers of international passage requirements for cruise ship passengers. Palin noted Young played a key role in implementing the waiver during the pandemic so vessels could pass through Canadian waters, calling it an example of why she never chose to run against him.

Begich, who was co-chair of Young’s 2020 reelection campaign, heatedly noted Palin as governor in 2008 “literally introduced (Lt. Gov.) Sean Parnell” when he ran against Young that year and “we’re not going to forget it’s about the record.”

“I didn’t run against him,” Palin interjected.

“Excuse me, I am speaking,” Begich retorted angrily. “You will have your opportunity to speak, governor.”

The two Republicans would agree, at least on substance, about other issues raised including support for military veterans. As with fisheries, Palin said it’s an area more federal involvement rather than less is needed.

“What you’re seeing is what happens when the government promises something, enticing people to join to protect their country…then the government backtracking when it comes to fulfilling obligations.” she said. “Why is it we have to do these private sector fundraisers all the time for our vets?”

Begich said an area of increased military support he favors is naval vessels.

“I have long said I believe that with more of the nation’s coastline than all other states (combined) Alaska needs a stable naval presence,” he said. He referred to icebreakers in particular since “we have a great deal more to do to open up the waterways of Alaska and protect the waterways of Alaska. It’s something we have had in the past and I think it’s something we’re going to need long into the future.”

When Peltola linked via Zoom to address Southeast Conference attendees at midday, she said it was her first official address to an organization as a member of congress. She said among her priorities with the limited time she has is continuing work by Young in reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act and trying to “move the ball forward” on opening the Willow oil field in the northern part of the state.

She received a standing ovation from the attendees at the end of her remarks and, while saying she was willing to answer a couple of questions, ended up instead getting something of a “wish you were here” greeting from one of the participants.

“You were missed, but it was very entertaining,” the woman told Peltola.

Juneau Empire reporter Mark Sabbatini can be reached at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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