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West Anchorage Candidate Forum

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Last Wednesday, the candidates running for House and Senate seats in West Anchorage convened in the Spenard Community Center to present themselves to a small, yet highly invested audience. Cookies and refreshments were as available to the audience as the opportunity to participate in this fine democracy.

The event was split into two segments, starting first with the candidates for the House.

The House.

Some House candidates made their unique personalities readily available in their opening statements. In District 16, Phil Isley made sure to proclaim that he is a non-affiliated candidate who wants to get away from oil interests, while Republican Anand Dubey, challenging Democratic incumbent Lindsey Holmes in District 19, made it clear that he does not consider himself a politician. He is, however, still determined to make a difference as a former employee for oil and state who believes that “the machine is broken.”

Michelle Scannell, a Texan and Democratic candidate running against Republican incumbent Mia Costello in District 20, told us she decided to become active in politics after 9-11 when she saw government overreach “that’s not right.” Costello did not attend the event.

We also met Chris Tuck, a lifelong Alaskan and electrician. The Democrat incumbent in District 22 faces Republican Lisa Vaught, who also chose not to appear before the crowd.

When asked if they supported restoring an Alaskan coastal management program – which the legislature allowed to expire in 2011 and was shot down, as a voter initiative, this summer – Republican Jimmy Crawford and Democrats Harriet Drummond, Lindsey Holmes, Michelle Scannell, and Chris Tuck all claimed support while Isley and Dubey did not support the program.

The candidates were then asked what the main concern that they heard when reaching out to constituents door to door was. Crawford told of concerned parents who were interested in education reform. Playing off of the education theme, Drummond also mentioned the need for safety and parks. Isley focused on the lack of action in government in Juneau. He said that his constituents thought that the legislators were not responsive and tired of state politics. Dubey echoed these sentiments, and once again proclaimed that the “government was a machine that was broken.”

Holmes and Tuck both mentioned a need for safety in neighborhoods and road improvement projects, most notably speed humps. Michelle Scannell referenced the push for oil tax reform, which she called the “2 billion dollar giveaway.”

The next question was about whether or not the District 16 candidates would support a state funded watershed study of Chester Creek/West Chester Lagoon.

The Chester Creek Watershed is a drainage system that covers just under 16,000 acres from Chester Creek and its tributaries. The controversy, according to a watershed study drafted back in 2005, is how to provide “guidance for balancing the environmental, social, and economic needs of the watershed” in a diverse, multi-use area.

Crawford expressed concerns about spending money without knowing the purpose of what the money was being spent on, and said we need to be financially responsible. Drummond indicated she would support it if it included flood control study for the protection of property and the creek itself. Isley said that he does not believe he will support it.

For the candidates in Districts 19 and 20, Ted Stevens International Airport was broached, with a question about whether the candidates would entertain community input as it pertains to air traffic noise and other airport related activity. This is a difficult question because, as Ted Stevens is a state-owned facility, it is self sufficient and does not rely on state funding.This begs the question of whether or not the legislature should intervene on behalf of constituents.

Dubey noted that bureaucracies cannot be allowed to run unchecked: “People need to be involved with the airport.” Both Lindsey Holmes and Michelle Scannell agreed. Holmes indicated she would lobby for a position on a committee to further advocate for this cause.

One of the more controversial subject was whether or not the candidates were in favor of a three or four lane Spenard road. Lindsey Holmes emphasized that she will take her queue from the community and community councils. Anand Dubey agreed, saying that he believed that Spenard could be the heartbeat of Anchorage. He added the caveat that his is a complex issue and that issues such as scope, budget, and schedule must all be taken into account. Isley focused on the businesses on the street believing that they should be listened to and that their survivability must be taken into account. He preferred a four lane approach. Drummond supported construction utilizing both three and four lane segments where appropriate. She indicated that this was the approach favored by the Spenard Chamber of Commerce. Crawford believes in approaching this situation in a manner that defends local businesses, learning from the Arctic Road construction project. He said that it’s important to make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.

When asked how they would approach working within a bipartisan legislature, Jimmy Crawford said that officials needed to move beyond “super egos” and figure out how 60 intelligent people in one room can communicate and accomplish things. Harriet Drummond offered that “the only way to get things done is to do your homework, show up, and talk to people. And I don’t have any problem doing that.” She referenced her experience on the Anchorage school board for nine years and assembly for the past five. Isley said that “not having a party, I believe I could get along with all of them. And I could probably even work with the Governor too.”

The final series of answers were concerned with the Alaskan educational system, and included a question asking whether or not the candidates supported a voucher program. Chris Tuck was the first to respond:

“I’m a firm believer in public schools for the public good of everyone, whether or not you have children in the school system. The raw benefit; the education that our children receive – after all, if you call 9-1-1, it’s going to be somebody’s child that comes to your help; to your aid.” He stressed the importance of parental involvement and public school funding.

Michelle Scannell also opposed vouchers, though her children attend private schools. She considered a voucher system akin to a government handout. Lindsey Holmes stressed the importance of school choice and diversity within the Anchorage school system, and said that voucher programs would come at the expense of the public school system. Anand Dubey returned to his bedrock messaging: “If something is broken you have to admit it’s broken.” He felt we’re throwing money at the public school system without identifying a solution to its problem, and feels that vouchers are the logical conclusion.

Phil Isley said that he will continue to push for interactive computer program and did not think that high school is a good place for trade schools, though he does support trade education with professionals outside of the traditional classroom setting.

Drummond interjected that the ASD is already inclusive of charter schools and that a voucher program could weaken the pluralist system. In part, she said: “I’m pretty sure the constitution says we will, in Alaska, that will maintain a system of public schools.”

Jimmy Crawford endorsed voucher programs, but said he preferred to call them scholarship programs. He is an advocate of trade education. Isley says that he will continue to push for interactive computer program and does not think that high school is a good place for trade schools, though he does support trade education with professionals outside of the traditional classroom setting.

The Senate.

After a brief intermission, the candidates switched out. Republican Don Smith and Democrat Berta Gardner (District H), Republican Bob Bell and incumbent Democrat Hollis French (District J), and Democratic challenger Roselynn Cacy (facing Republican incumbent challenger Lesil McGuire, represented by a surrogate at the debate, in District K) took the stage.

The debate started off with a firework or two, as a complaint was lodged vocally against McGuire’s surrogate being included in the debate. The complaint was sustained, and the surrogate removed.

The two competitors who really came out swinging against each other were Bob Bell and Hollis French, though they did so in a dignified manner that made me proud to witness local Alaskan politics that rose above the shoe throwing of a South Korean Parliament. To exemplify their positions, Bob Bell said that “I think our Senate was pretty dysfunctional these last two years.” and Hollis French stated that the two issues he was going to focus on were energy and education.

All candidates support an Alaskan Coastal Zone Management program with the exception of Don Smith.

When asked if they attend community council meetings, four candidates answered “yes,” while Don Smith answered “occasionally.”

When asked what the top concerns are from their constituents when going door to door, Smith said that it was the false state of fiscal affairs. Gardner echoed the sentiments of the House candidates when mentioning public safety, which included fixing potholes and making sure that children walking to school arrive safely. Bell said that it was the inability of the legislature to do people business. Hollis French said that the most pressing issue that his door to door experiences had brought up are oil taxes.

Don Smith said that he was not willing to commit to a Chester Creek scientific study, noting that there is a need to prioritize government spending.

Hollis French openly promotes a more open and community friendly structure concerning the Ted Stevens International Airport and their development projects.

One of the more controversial topics for the candidates would once again be the issue of whether or not Spenard should be turned into a three or four lane street. Cacy said that in general, a three lane highway would be dangerous, but she would look for the input of the community. French leans towards three lanes but would also seek the support of the Mayor and the community. Bell proclaimed that businesses do not want it. Gardner stated that she has no personal preference but does seek community input. Smith suspects that he would not be in favor of it but would like to see a cost/benefit analysis.

When asked how they would approach bipartisanship in Juneau, the responses of the candidates were remarkably similar. Smith said that he can work with people of different persuasions. Bell remarked that “Once elected, we are sixty people trying to do peoples business,” and that “we are just Alaskans.”

Interestingly, after Bells statement, Mr. French reminded the audience that not an hour earlier, Mr. Bell had raised a “no” vote against working towards bipartisan legislation.

Perhaps as it was destined to, the issue of mining came up in the form of a question from a concerned audience member. Bell offered: “I don’t know what the economics of mining is.”

Concerning education, Cacy believes that a good education saves us money in the long run and that we might consider getting rid of high school qualifying exams. French believes that the government has stymied concerning education. He believes in voluntary Kindergarten and that education is the cheapest way to spend raw capital in a positive manner. Bell also emphasized that funding education would be a high priority for him.

Some Concluding Remarks

Attending this meeting was more than just an Alaska Commons assignment for me, it also served as part of my education in how Alaskan politics works. Having spent so many years with my nose in books on International Relations and Human Rights, my knowledge on what is occurring in my own backyard is surprisingly lacking, and this forum proved that. Seemingly mundane issues do actually have a direct impact on the quality of life that our citizens enjoy. The choices that these candidates will make, if elected, will effect everything from local businesses to how we protect ourselves from natural disasters, to the future of the Alaskan educational system. Which is why it was so disappointing that there were so few young individuals there. Yet, at the same time, I can understand how such a venue may turn off those who have no previous knowledge of the material. But this is why attendance is important. I learned more about what was impacting the West side of Anchorage in one night than I have in years of browsing the paper. This recap may prove to be informative, but it can serve as no substitute for actual community involvement.