A Tuesday Youth Vote candidate forum at West High School in Anchorage provided plenty of contrast between U.S. Senate candidates, some angst, and maybe one PG-13 moment.
The forum was hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Anchorage School District. KTUU broadcast the debate live.
Lacy Dowden, a student at Dimond High School, opened the forum by describing the goals of Anchorage Youth Vote, one of which is “to engage peers in the democratic process.” All gubernatorial and Senate candidates were invited to participate, said Dowden, but all gubernatorial candidates had other campaign engagements, and Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan declined to participate.
Gov. Sean Parnell, running for re-election, and his opponent, independent candidate Bill Walker, were in Fairbanks addressing the Chamber of Commerce, but both submitted pre-taped video responses.
In response to a question about diversifying the Alaska economy, Walker pointed to fishing and tourism as options to balance oil and gas. He recommended the film industry as an option for the young audience. Alaska also needed to return to a state of food security. While Alaska grew half of its food when it became a state, it now grows only four percent.
Parnell said that lower cost energy would lead to more businesses. Alaska, he said, should and does incentivize geothermal, wind, and hydro energy. Another project is the “gas line that you can have a hand in building,” Parnell told the audience.
The candidates were asked about budget cuts and the future of Alaska public schools. Walker said Parnell wanted to use public funds for private schools, a policy with which he disagreed. He suggested technical schools, which have waiting lists and high graduation rates, as a good option for Alaska.
Parnell said he had increased state funding for public schools by $300 million as governor. He also suggested more technical training and praised the opportunity provided by the Alaska Performance Scholarship.
The most timely question asked of the gubernatorial candidates was about marriage equality. Walker described himself and his wife as “people of strong faith” who support the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. However, he recognized that courts have been striking down bans like that in Alaska’s constitution. By the time you see this video, said Walker, Alaska’s ban may have been struck down. (It has.) Walker said that he would follow the direction of the court, and if elected, would place his hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the law.
Parnell said he did not believe in discriminating, but had a job as governor to uphold the constitution, which says marriage is between a man and a woman. (Parnell is challenging the ruling of Judge Timothy Burgess.)
In his closing remarks, Walker said Alaska needs to put people before politics.
“Every day as governor, I work to clear paths of opportunity for you,” Parnell concluded.
Senate Candidates Get Their Turn
West High students Barae Hirsch and Allison Haynes took turns asking questions of Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Libertarian Mark Fish, and independent candidate Ted Gianoutsos. The questions were chosen from 200 submitted by middle and high school students across Anchorage.
Fish and Begich offered brief boilerplate opening remarks, while Gianoutsos declared he had “never seen a Senate election as bad as this one.” He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket, telling the audience members that if they carried something similar, then “they” were on the students’ backs. He clarified this remark later. Kind of. Gianoutsos drew substantial applause when he said, “I don’t target anyone.”
Fish said Alaska could lead in the development of clean energy by eliminating excessive regulations. For example, he said he was not allowed to sink a well on his Glenn Allen property because the government feared he would hit natural gas. Fish asked why he couldn’t just develop that gas himself.
Begich said Alaska was a testing ground for clean energy technology, listing tidal power in Cook Inlet as a future project and wind power on Fire Island as a current one. Landfill methane that had previously been burned was being captured and sold to the military, he said. These are all projects that would lead Alaska to its goal of 50 percent renewable energy by 2025.
Gianoutsos told the students he was only running for a single term to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. He would introduce a bill called National Endowment for Wildlife-National Energy Trust-ANWR (NEW-NET-ANWR), which would divide revenues between Alaska, the federal government, and an endowment within the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) that Gianoutsos helped create. He drew another big round of applause from students when he said PFD checks should be $8,000 to $10,000.
Begich celebrated a six-year low in Alaska unemployment numbers, saying the state should continue to diversify its economy and invest in education. Gianoutsos, in contrast, said Alaska’s prosperity was due to oil and gas, so he would open ANWR. He would not sit talking in D.C., like Begich “or worse, [Sen.] Lisa [Murkowski (R-Alaska)].” And Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) had been in D.C., for 44 years, Gianoutsos said.
Fish said unemployment was up to the students, and government needed to get out of their way. 67 percent of Alaska is owned by the government, he said. That had to change so the students could create wealth and become employers, rather than employees.
On foreign affairs, Gianoutsos said the U.S. has been dominant since World War II. The U.S. constitutes only four percent of the world population, he said, but its culture has created a “sea of blue jeans.” Middle East activists are really terrorists that want to take over our country, said Gianoutsos, and the U.S. needed to pay attention in order to remain “number one forevermore.”
Fish said a country is defined by its borders, and the U.S. needs to not interfere while nations define theirs. Begich said that while Alaska has 77,000 veterans and a military tradition, the U.S. can’t be the world police. Begich did not support Barack Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels against ISIS. The Middle East expects the U.S. to take the costs and casualties, he said, but it must step up.
Things Get Awkward
Fish opposed government involvement in student loan debt. Firms profit by selling loans to each other and then influence legislation. “You’re viewed as commodities,” Fish told the students.
I used to chair the Student Loan Corporation for Alaska, said Begich. He blamed floating government loan rates and said he sponsored legislation to lower the rate to a flat 3.85 percent.
These were “lots of good words,” Gianoutsos said of Begich. He said he had two degrees, and his wife Francoise had four. They paid for these working two jobs apiece, said Gianoutsos. They paid off $78,000 in loan debt, and he said that the students could do the same by working.
This drew significantly less applause.
Begich’s defense of reproductive rights drew loud cheers and applause. Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), he said, women had paid higher health care premiums. He believed the government should stay out of a woman’s right to choose.
Gianoutsos’ response to the question about reproductive rights was the highlight of the debate for many students. Contraception, he said, was to prevent unwanted pregnancies, for which men bear the responsibility. “Ladies,” said Gianoutsos, “are not out there for our male chauvinist pig pleasures.” He said he has loved, honored, and cherished his wife for over fifty years, and “enjoyed many instances of sex.” He advised students to have as much sex as they want, but prevent pregnancies.
“That was pretty good,” Fish said to an audience still recovering. Fish described himself as a pro-life libertarian. He supported a definition of life beginning at conception because he anticipated a day when humans would be born outside the womb. “We have to be ready” to say those are human, Fish said, but no woman should be prosecuted for abortion.
On dealing with partisanship, Gianoutsos pointed to his record getting the NFWF through Congress. He could do the same with ANWR, he said. “That’s something Mark has never done, not Lisa, not Don, not Ted Stevens, God rest his soul.
Libertarian Fish said that the founders had made no provisions for political parties, but he recognized that people prefer to associate with like-minded individuals. Rather than using hope, change, fear, and emotion, Fish believed that Libertarians could bring reason to bear.
Begich said he would work with anybody for Alaska. He sponsored legislation with Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) to audit the feds, he said. He and Murkowski voted together 80 percent of the time, said Begich. “If Congress acted like Alaska, they would get more done than ever before,” he said.
Things Get Chippy
Fish said negative campaign ads were the easiest thing to elicit a knee jerk reaction and get people to vote. He encouraged voters to stop listening to the pandering and not to vote for candidates with the most money. They should insist on forums like the one on Tuesday, he said, and candidates who don’t show up should be taken out of consideration.
Begich jumped up quickly to agree. “It’s disappointing one of our opponents is not here,” he said, referring to his GOP challenger, Dan Sullivan. “Everybody makes choices.” Alaskans have to plow through the dark money, said Begich. He said he tried to limit it two weeks ago in a move that would have removed 300 commercials a day, but Sullivan said no.
“Did I hear you correctly?” Gianoutsos asked Begich. Turning to the audience, Gianoutsos said Sullivan was “not here, but he’s in your pocket and on your back. So is Mark.” They brought millions of dollars from the Lower 48, said Gianoutsos, and that was only what was declared. Gianoutsos hinted there was money under the table, too. “They have targeted your cell phones and laptops. They know where you are and what you are doing,” he said.
When asked a question about Syria, Begich said he had already addressed that topic, so he wanted to respond to Gianoutsos’ comments, to which he took “personal offense.” Begich agreed that campaign finance reform was needed, “but to suggest I’ve taken money under the table is wrong.” 6,000 Alaskans had donated to his campaign, all of which was published, said Begich. Returning quickly to Syria, Begich said he voted against arming the rebels and supported humanitarian aid. He got a hefty amount of applause for his defense.
“Don’t take offense for all those millions you’ve brought in,” responded Gianoutsos. He said the U.S. has troops in a majority of countries and has been paying for Mideast oil with dollars and blood. Gianoutsos said he wanted to replace every drop of blood with ANWR oil.
Fish said ISIS had been created by U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. armed Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden. Four presidents in a row bombed Iraq, he said. “Billions of your dollars flushed as we bombed our own tanks,” said Fish. “There are some things the U.S. is not going to fix.”
On the subject of wilderness preservation, Gianoutsos again pointed to the NFWF. Opening ANWR would fund preservation under his plan. “It takes money to conserve wilderness,” said Gianoutsos. “I gave my estate to the country for that purpose. Have you given your estate to your country?” he asked, turning to Begich. There was quite a bit of gasping in the audience and none of the early applause Gianoutsos received.
Fish advocated for the transfer of federal lands in Alaska to the state. “The government closest to the people is the best,” he said. Begich said he had prevented Ship Creek erosion as mayor by building fishing platforms. While he supports mining, he opposes Pebble Mine.
Fish stumbled a bit discussing whether an employer’s religion should influence employee healthcare, first saying the ACA had been modified 24 times, then 42 times, contrary to law. “The law is supposed to mean something,” he said.
Begich said the question was about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. The ACA included preventive medicine for women at no cost. Begich disagreed with the Court overturning that.
Gianoutsos said health care should be suspended for Congress and the president until they could get health care correct for every American. The ACA had been written for medical special interests, he said.
In his closing remarks, Gianoutsos said the Alaska delegation and Sullivan are in it for themselves, not Alaska. He repeated that he would go to D.C., for a single term and encouraged the audience to vote for congressional candidate Forrest Dunbar, who he said has three college degrees.
Fish said televised debates were important. He said society is where the good was. All the government could do was apply force.
Begich expressed disappointment that the minimum wage wasn’t discussed or oil and gas, except for ANWR, drawing a chuckle. He told the students their votes would determine the outcome of the election.