Last week’s Lieutenant Governor candidate forum was politically comparable to the football world’s Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl. It was a traditional kick-off to election season, lacking the heavyweights of later debates, with one team not bothering to show up. Republican state senator Lesil McGuire called in sick at the last moment. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan just didn’t bother, employing the Don Young strategy: if you have enough monied interests already behind you, you don’t need to face the public. He’ll show up for the Chamber of Commerce debate, but I wouldn’t expect too much beyond that.
As a result, the couple dozen of attendees were treated to a look at the two Democratic candidates, state senator Hollis French and 2009 Alaska Teacher of the Year Bob Williams, and independent candidate Craig Fleener, running on a ticket with Bill Walker (unofficially, because the Alaska Political Office Commission told them they couldn’t make it official).
Governor Parnell remains a heavy favorite for re-election at the top of the ticket, meaning that there is a very good chance that none of the three non-Republican challengers will win the job. But an upset absolutely remains a possibility.
KTVA’s Rhonda McBride played moderator. From the outset, she seemed a bit deflated that the two frontrunner candidates were absent. She would repeatedly protest the “skewed” nature of the forum.
French dusted off his 2010 gubernatorial stump speech, emphasizing the three issues he cares about most: energy, education, and elections. Energy and education, he said, are “the cornerstones to a prosperous future” for Alaskans.
Williams, the Democratic underdog, is as affable as they come. He darted toward attendees as they walked in the door to introduce himself. With a clumsy but earnest delivery, he went over his background as a teacher, born and raised in Palmer. He said his father had a homestead in the Mat-Su, a one-man sawmill. “I grew up with a very strong work ethic, having a father as a logger. If I didn’t work fast enough, or I wasn’t quick enough, my father would yell at me and say, ‘If you don’t get working quicker, the only job you’re ever going to get in life is with the government.'”
Behind dark rimmed glasses, Fleener led with what separates him from all the other candidates: “I’m running as a nonpartisan, non-affiliated candidate, free from party politics and corruption, to be your next Lieutenant Governor.”
The diversity in his resume was impressive: a “Gwich’in warrior, an Athabascan, I’m a Marine Corps veteran, an Alaska guardsman, a biologist, a firefighter, a fur buyer, an aircraft mechanic, and a janitor. I’m a father, a grandfather, a husband, a Christian, a moose hunter, and a wood cutter.” Fleener used that diversity to bring home his best sales pitch: “My ultimate goal here is to bring Alaskans together to solve the problems that plague us all.”
Alaska’s political system has suffered from a disastrous decade of poor leadership. From iron-fist politics by some and meek mannerisms of others. Poor leadership is bringing Alaska to our knees, and it’s evident by inaction, a looming fiscal cliff, wasteful billion-dollar giveaways, and never ending studies that do not deliver. When I’m elected, study hall will be over.
That was a powerful punch from Fleener, delivered deadpan; as a matter of fact, not politics. He had everyone’s attention.
McBride began rolling out the questions.
What do you think was the best idea ever hatched in Alaska politics?
Williams: Become a state. “Very proud to be an Alaskan; very proud to be an Alaskan.”
Fleener: Sustained yield. “Making sure that we manage everything for the benefit of all Alaskans.”
French: The Alaska State Constitution. “It’s an act of genius.”
What’s the next great idea in Alaska politics?
Fleener: A long term energy policy.
French: Repeal the oil tax reform passed last session.
Williams: We need to lower our suicide and domestic violence rates.
A healthy dose of agreement.
The candidates agreed a lot, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, taking into account how distinctly not-Republican they were. Amanda Coyne, in her debate coverage, thought this inspired a lot of hostility toward the GOP, but I doubt it would have been much different if McGuire and Sullivan had shown up.
No one, for instance, opted to defend the recent change in oil tax policy. French mentioned it nearly every time he spoke. No one thought “Choose Respect” was doing much to curb our domestic abuse rates. Everyone agreed that, given the proper training, village public safety officers should be armed.
When asked about the Governor’s recent decision to pay down the public retirement debt, there was universal agreement that it was the right thing to do. Fleener, however, expressed reluctance, saying that the larger problem was “growing government.”
With similar reservations, he joined the Democrats in their objection to turning down the Medicare expansion that was part of the Affordable Care Act, saying “we should have taken the money.” By turning it down, Fleener said, we were forfeiting it to states like California and Texas.
“Oh, for the love of Alaska,” Williams added to the topic of the Medicare expansion. “If you’ve ever looked at one issue in which the Chamber of Commerce, the hospital associations – everyone says there’s just a no-brainer decision to make. You’re going to bring in well over a billion dollars over a period of time, you’re going to bring in 4,000 jobs, you’re going to improve the quality of life of over 40,000 Alaskans. And to say no to that is absolutely ridiculous.”
French landed one of his best moments of the night on the topic: “We’ve had a 55 year policy in the state of maximizing federal investment in Alaska. I don’t know when it changed, I don’t know why it’s changed just for health care, and I think it’s one reason why you don’t see any Republicans here in the debate.”
When the following question asked the panel to grade Parnell’s performance, French assigned him a D and Fleener bumped him up to a C-. This set up the Mat-Su Democrat for the biggest laugh of the night: “F. And I’m a teacher.”
Fleener agreed with the criticism of Parnell’s leadership, but chose to take it in a much broader direction often lacking (or missing outright) in political discussions.
It’s not just this governor. I think the legislature is to blame, I think the governor is to blame. I think many legislatures past are to blame. And that is with the Alaska Native and state of Alaska relationship. There isn’t a relationship… And, right now, if you go to any village in the state of Alaska, they feel as if there is a war between the state of Alaska and tribes. And I think we need to heal that. I think it’s been a problem forever.
He said, bluntly, that when it came to the rural-urban divide, Alaska Natives have not been invited to the table, and that needed to change.
The Lieutenant Governor is tasked with certifying state regulations before they go into effect. If you had to sign a regulation that you didn’t agree with, how would you approach that?
Hollis French had the answer: “That’s out of bounds. You’re bound by the statutes that are passed…. Your job is ministerial; you’re not a one-man legislature. You don’t have veto power.”
The Anchorage lawmaker thought that it raised philosophical questions. What if there was a citizens initiative calling for Alaska to enact a death penalty, and the criteria for certification had been met? “I’m opposed to that,” he said. But in that situation, it could be that the only lawful recourse to balance morality and the duties of the office would be to resign.
Is federal overreach really happening?
French dismissed the overuse of the term by the Parnell administration: “You can never go wrong bashing the federal government.”
While federal overreach does exist, especially when it comes to privacy rights, he said its use in politics breeds a hostility that was unfortunate.
Williams agreed. He was actually mistakenly added to the no-fly list because Homeland Security confused him with someone sharing his birthday. But he also concurred with French’s sentiment that Alaska has been claiming every act of the federal government as overreach, saying it has been used by Parnell as a distraction.
Fleener was on a different page entirely.
“I think we could probably list a hundred things,” he responded. He referenced the recent EPA decision to nix a 22-mile road connecting King Cove to Cold Bay, and also the Affordable Care Act, as examples. He also felt there was a lot of state government overreach. “I think that most anything the government gets involved in ends up costing more than it should. Most everything they get their hands on is run worse than it could be.”
This led to the single heated moment between the candidates. Rhonda McBride acknowledged Fleener’s repeated emphasis on the state’s poor relationship with tribes. She asked the other two candidates to weigh in. Bob Williams disagreed with how Fleener characterized government involvement as the problem.
“We have to build trust,” he said. “And, so, I don’t really view that as state overreach, I view that as state under reach, and we’ve made a lot of decisions in this state that, I think, are not respectful to Alaska Native groups.”
Fleener flinched visibly.
One of the big problems, Bob, that tribes have – or that is put onto tribes – is the fact that we don’t even engage them in conversation the right way. For example, you just used the term “groups”; “native groups.” We don’t like to be called “native groups”. We like to be called tribes. I’m a tribal member. I’m Gwichyaa Gwi’chin, and I’m a tribal member, not a “native group.”
How do we improve education?
Fleener: Less standardization, more vocational education.
French: statewide, voluntary pre-kindergarten education; Head Start.
Williams: Focus on quality of teachers; reduce turnover.
What can we do to bridge the rural-urban divide?
Williams: We have to keep both rural and urban communities in mind when we craft policy.
French: Renewable energy and education.
Fleener: Better communication and more job opportunities.
I wouldn’t be able to choose a clear winner of the debate (though of the several forums I’ve seen him in, Anchorage mayor Dan Sullivan gave his most solid performance yet).
Hollis French is personable, knowledgeable, and a great presenter, but his continued reliance on his objection to the recent oil tax policy change (as objectionable as it is) creates a drag on the rest of his message. I found myself continually counting down the clock until he pivoted to oil taxes. It became distracting. Oil tax policy is huge; it kind of pays for everything else. But it can’t be the only thing a candidate has to say.
Bob Williams is a great combination of likable, folksy, and poignant. His blue collar aura shines through and his ability to weave in his genuine sense of humor makes him quite a surprising dark horse. He’s got a bit of a Columbo vibe going on; perfectly clumsy.
Craig Fleener is passionate, reserved, and walks a fine line between an independent populist and an anti-government conservative. There is a subtle intensity about him that is electrifying, and should serve well to complement Bill Walker, who is much more soft spoken and reluctant to take swings at opponents.
The biggest problem is that none of them seemed to be running for lieutenant governor. They all spoke of broad policies and sweeping changes that simply don’t fall under the auspices of that office. Throughout the forum, it felt like a legislative or gubernatorial race; a competition for a position where they could have more influence to enact many of the ideas they expressed over the course of the debate. Many of the questions steered them in this direction. And they never worked their way to discussing elections, which actually is something they could improve in the role of lieutenant governor.