On Monday morning, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce hosted their second candidate forum in as many weeks. Last week’s gubernatorial forum, however — with all the coverage, supporters, and hype — was a much different beast than yesterday’s lieutenant governor forum.
The lieutenant governor of Alaska is an interesting position. Article III, Section 7 of our state constitution defines it with no shortage of ambiguity: “He shall perform such duties as may be prescribed by law and as may be delegated to him by the governor.”
If elected, State Senator Lesil McGuire (R-Anchorage) will likely have some difficulties performing the whole part about being a “he” — though, statutorily, “words of any gender may, when the sense so indicates, refer to any other gender.” McGuire would be just the second woman to occupy the office (Fran Ulmer, who served under Democratic Governor Tony Knowles, was the first).
The duties of office have grown to include heading the citizens’ initiative process, filing administrative regulations, protecting the state seal, and the all important oversight of elections. Thus, the nature of debates — floods of questions about hot button issues that will never fall under the auspices of the office — tends to serve more as a political distraction than a relevant preview of how one candidate or another may spend his or her time in Juneau.
Pro tip #1 for aspiring governor lite candidates: prepare your zingers and laugh lines, but be careful not to say anything controversial enough to alert potential voters who otherwise have no inclination to care. Pro tip #2 for Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, running on the GOP ticket against McGuire: see Pro Tip #1.
This year, five candidates are submitting their resumes to voters. Outgoing senate minority leader, State Senator Hollis French (D-Anchorage) and Bob Williams are vying for the Democratic nod, while Sen. McGuire and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan are competing for the position underneath Republican Governor Sean Parnell. Craig Fleener, running on an independent ticket with Bill Walker, is the fifth wheel. Fleener, who also serves in the National Guard, was absent Monday’s forum while on active duty.
Also absent was the usual moderator, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce President Andrew Halcro. Halcro and McGuire have some unpleasant history, likely causing the substitution. Local conservative radio host, Dave Stieren, filled in.
All in the family.
“I expect your looking for someone with a strong work ethic,” Democratic darkhorse candidate Bob Williams told the full room at the Dena’ina in his introductory statements. “And there’s no better way to have a strong work ethic then to grow up the son of a logger.”
Williams’ dad moved to Alaska in 1949 and operated a sawmill outside of Palmer, where the 2009 Alaska State Teacher of the Year worked under his tutelage during high school. “And if I was ever slow, or he thought I could be a little bit faster, in a very strong voice he’d say: ‘work harder or the only job you’re ever going to get is with the government.'”
There is no better joke at a Chamber forum than a government-jobs-are-for-losers joke. True story.
Family was how most of the candidates chose to introduce themselves. And no one had a more pronounced Alaska family name than Anchorage mayor, Dan Sullivan. His grandmother was the first woman to serve as mayor in the state, in Nenana. His father was the first Anchorage Mayor Sullivan. “I’m proud to follow in those footsteps,” Sullivan told the crowd, also noting that his sister currently serves as a Wasilla city councilwoman.
Family also can be used as a weapon.
“I too am motivated to run for lieutenant governor by a public service background. But not one of those stereotypical family dynasties that Alaska has sort of grown to have,” Sullivan’s challenger, McGuire, retorted in her introduction. She said she came from “more humble roots.” Her father was the first of the family to attend college and medical school, inspiring her to blaze a similar trail. “The value of hard work and public service was ingrained in me from the time I was a little girl.”
The Edumacation Session.
On the heels of the “Education Session,” Stieren asked the candidates what academic benchmarks they thought should be used to get Alaska’s students to 90 percent attendance and 90 percent graduation by 2020.
Williams, free from any involvement outside of candidatry, responded sharply. “We have a governor, in the State of the State speech, and also two lieutenant governor candidates [during Juneau’s forum at the GOP convention, who] doubled down on vouchers for Alaska. And it makes absolutely no sense. It’s a transfer of wealth from public schools to non-public schools and it does absolutely nothing to improve the quality of education.” Williams stressed that a better benchmark to evaluate academic progress would be poverty, saying that the poorer the students, the worse the results.
State Senator Hollis French (D-Anchorage) agreed, and added an objection to the premise of the question. He said that the education package passed by the legislature contained multiple benchmarks, such as the move to replace the exit exam with a requirement that students take the SAT, the ACT, or WorkKeys, and allowed students to test out of courses. “Frankly, in my opinion, student attendance is not driven by academic benchmarks. It’s driven by social factors.”
In an odd moment where one could replace the name “Sullivan” with the name “Bloomberg,” Sullivan said more student performance reforms were necessary. He pointed to findings from Education Matters, Inc., a non-profit he helped put together in 2012. “We’ve got Alaska last in the nation in fourth grade reading, near the bottom of the pack in eighth grade math — two of the key indicators of future success. We have to do something different, and it’s not just simply throwing money at it.”
Minutes later, deviating from a question about the future of the University of Alaska, Williams returned to the issue specifically to object to Sullivan’s dismissal of school funding. “Funding public education is not ‘throwing money at it.’ It’s one of the most important things we do. It is not a burden, it’s a responsibility.”
SB21: To repeal, or not to repeal? That seems like every question.
McGuire and Sullivan strongly oppose the referendum to repeal the Parnell administration-backed and legislature-approved oil tax policy. “If we don’t continue forward with a consistent fiscal system, and the message that it sends, and the competitiveness,” McGuire said, “Alaska is in big trouble.”
McGuire cited a report authored by University of Alaska economist Scott Goldsmith, released on May 1, which found that SB21 did not cause the $2 billion deficit that its opponents have been claiming. Goldsmith thought the appropriate number attributable to Parnell’s oil tax policy shift was closer to $90 million, and said the state would be better off under the new structure. McGuire said we should stick with what we have now, calling ACES a “disaster.”
Sullivan pointed to new investment coming online, and said that ACES had done “nothing to stop the rate of decline.”
Williams and French both support the repeal. French highlighted an $8.5 billion difference between what ACES raised from 2007-2013 and what SB21 would have raised over the same time period.
“That’s about enough to fund our entire education budget through those years. And by passing SB21, we’ve pushed $8.5 billion across the table to the oil industry, and it’s not going to result in $8.5 billion more oil coming down the pipeline.”
Dan Sullivan’s crystal ball kind of sucks.
The final question from Stieren pertained directly to the job the four candidates were applying for. “You are there to make sure the state seal doesn’t hop off the wall and the ballots get counted,” he offered to a spattering of chuckles. “That’s your job. Why do you want to be lieutenant governor?”
French said he loved public service, reflecting on his time in the senate. But he noted that the lieutenant governorship came with an often glossed over responsibility that uniquely appealed to him. “Please do not understate the power of running the Division of Elections,” he said emphatically. “That’s a foundational aspect to our society; free elections, fair elections, elections where every single ballot is counted accurately.”
Sullivan did not make mention of that super important facet of the job he was running for — mostly because of the job he’s held. Facing term limits in his final year as mayor of Anchorage, Sullivan said he still had more to give to the state. He failed to mention the absolutely, horrendously botched 2012 municipal elections, which happened under his watch. Then-deputy municipal clerk, Jacqueline Duke, was fired after widespread ballot shortages barred many voters from having their votes count.
McGuire, reaching over and touching him on the arm in true “Bless your heart” fashion, seized the opportunity.
“With all respect to the gentleman to my left, we have examples where we’ve had mayors come in and believe that they’re suited immediately to be lieutenant governor or governor,” McGuire said, approaching apologia. Many of those times, she said, those mayors (read: Dan Sullivan) really want to be governor. She said this has led to “tremendous failures.”
It would be unfair to say that McGuire’s comments made Sullivan grimace. But he grimaced through the entire forum.
Unexpectedly, Sullivan responded by consulting his crystal ball. He has one. And he brought it to the forum, as candidates with crystal balls would do. An actual crystal ball. He said his wife found it in Palmer and it may have predictive qualities.
Unfortunately, the curious prop had little to offer. Sullivan, on the other hand, half-jokingly indicated it had told him that three years from now, “President Rand Paul opens ANWR, armed with a Republican House and a Republican Senate, so we can finally get that done.”
Stieren (who tensed up upon introduction of the crystal ball) leaned back, smiled, sarcastically quipped: “Good luck,” and promptly moved on.
And then an audience member broached the topic of “Right to Work” legislation, asking where candidates stood on the popular conservative trend of curbing collective bargaining rights. Sullivan didn’t need the crystal ball. He touted Ordinance 37, a labor law rewrite that would severely curtail collective bargaining rights for municipal workers. AO37 passed through the Assembly, and faces a referendum vote which will be featured abnormally on a special election — also the mayor’s doing — held at the same time as the general election in November. Sullivan was quick to respond poorly.
I support Right to Work legislation. Nobody should ever have to basically pay a fee to someone else to get a job in this state. I mean, we got rid of slavery a long time ago. You should never have to encumber yourself out of your wages in order to work in this state. It’s a freedom issue.
There are so many reasons, included in that statement, that warrant a swift bang one’s head against the desk (He’s aware that slaves weren’t wage earners, yes?). But, suffice to say, candidates are generally best served not using slavery as a point of reference for any contemporary subject. It’s a bad thing to equate with anything other than, well, slavery. And it’s especially problematic when used to defend (promote) political attempts to remove workers’ rights to unionize and negotiate for competitive compensation and benefits.
And it set McGuire up perfectly as the not-comparing-union-busting-to-slavery champion on the Republican ticket.
What we’ve seen at the local level — what’s happened — it’s been somewhat of a disaster here in Anchorage. When you go so far and start pushing almost a war, if you will, against the working men and women in this state.
Sullivan is not a personable candidate — just as he has not been a personable mayor. Whereas McGuire seems to enjoy shaking hands, smiling, and speaking publicly, Sullivan looks ill attempting any of the three. This forum represented a chance for him to shine in front of the most reflective base he could possibly hope to energize, and he failed categorically.
“Sullivan,” I heard an older gentleman say behind a Bob Lynn-esque beard, chatting with a similar looking compatriot as they headed down the escalator leaving the Dena’ina. “The hell was that about, anyway?”
The crystal ball appears to be about as helpful to Anchorage’s mayor as the tennis ball.