Dunleavy challenger attacks incumbent over state’s population decline

Democratic candidate Les Gara says budget, abortion and LGBTQ issues are encouraging out-migration

By: - September 14, 2022 6:02 pm

Democratic governor candidate Les Gara speaks at a candidate forum Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, in Ketchikan as independent governor candidate Bill Walker watches from a screen. Walker participated in the forum by teleconference. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

One of the leading challengers to incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy accused him on Wednesday of supporting policies that have encouraged people to migrate away from Alaska. The other said opportunity in Alaska is “imploding” under the incumbent.

“More people have left the state under this governor than have moved here,” said Democratic candidate Les Gara, speaking at a candidate forum in Ketchikan.

The out-migration trend began before Dunleavy took office in 2018 — last year was the ninth consecutive year in which more people left the state than arrived — but Gara said Dunleavy’s budget cuts have discouraged people from moving to the state and his opposition to abortion rights and stances on LGBTQ issues may do so in the future.

“People need to know that there’s a future with jobs and a future where they can rely on public education. And people don’t see either the ability to rely on schools in the future or the ability to say, ‘You know, there is going to be a job for my kid in the state 5 years or 10 years from now.’ Those things are very important.”

“Life in Alaska is full of opportunity. But it’s imploding with what we see happening,” said independent governor candidate Bill Walker.

Dunleavy has brought “Washington D.C.-style politics” to Alaska, deferring domestic issues in favor of national ones, Walker said. 

“I’ve just not seen such a partisan tone in my lifetime here,” he said, adding that a governor has to be prepared to work with the federal government, regardless of whether it is controlled by a Republican President or a Democratic one.

“You have to sit down and build a relationship,” Walker said.

Les Gara, Democratic candidate for Alaska governor, speaks on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, during a candidate forum in Ketchikan. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The two men spoke for almost an hour to attendees of Southeast Conference, an annual regional gathering of political and business leaders. Gara attended in person and Walker by teleconference. Dunleavy was absent, as was Republican Charlie Pierce, the fourth man in this year’s Nov. 8 governor race.

Andrew Jensen, a state employee and spokesperson for the Dunleavy campaign, said the governor was attending a groundbreaking ceremony for a solar farm in Houston that will be the state’s largest.

Jensen noted that the state’s out-migration pattern began long before Dunleavy entered office, and that during his term, the incumbent governor has dealt with a major earthquake, wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which have affected the state. 

“I think to look at a two-year period where we’ve had to deal with these pandemic impacts, and just blame that on the governor, I think it’s just a sign of desperate campaigns who are trying to just throw everything they can, and try to see what sticks,” he said.

Gara encourages ranked-choice picks

Gara and Walker are appearing at an extended series of events across the state, speaking to voters as they attempt to swing votes away from Dunleavy, who received 40.4% of the vote in the Aug. 16 primary election and finished first. Gara was second, with 23.1%, and Walker third with 22.8%. Pierce was fourth with 6.6%.

November’s general election will use ranked-choice voting, and Gara asked the Ketchikan audience to rank at least two candidates — Walker and him. He said he’d be ranking himself No. 1, a remark that drew laughs.

“I can’t believe I’m sitting here pitching a second-place vote for my opponent, but he’s shown up, I’ve shown up,” Gara said, referring to Dunleavy’s absence.

Gara was more serious as he talked about the way he sees Dunleavy’s positions on social issues driving people away from the state.

“Governor Dunleavy wants us to go and tell people they don’t have reproductive freedom rights and tells people that he gets to decide who they get to love,” Gara said, referring to Dunleavy’s opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

He also referenced a post on Twitter in which Dunleavy said he supports a ban on transgender women in women’s sports.

“I don’t want to chase our most talented workers out of the state,” Gara said. “But this assault on women’s rights and this assault on equal rights is going to chase people out of the state. I want to welcome people to stay in the state, and I want this to be a strong state, and those are very strong workers, some of the most talented workers in the state.”

Jensen said social issues aren’t what the governor hears about when he talks to Alaskans.

“Alaskans are concerned about inflation. That’s actually restricting our ability to devote more resources to jobs,” he said.

“For Les Gara to talk about policies, the federal policies that are coming from his party are the ones that are really hurting Alaska’s future, whether that’s the Ambler Road, whether that’s North Slope oil development, whether that’s the Tongass National Forest — these are Democrat policies that are shutting down Alaska’s opportunities,” Jensen said.

Limited outmigration data available

State Demographer David Howell said the Alaska Department of Labor has not performed any surveys asking people why they leave the state, but historically, it has been because of the availability of jobs in the Lower 48 when compared to Alaska.

On statewide public radio last month, a panel of economists suggested that Alaska’s high cost of living and aging population are contributing factors. Other economists have suggested that a lack of amenities, including good schools, parks and public infrastructure, are making Alaska uncompetitive with other states.

Gara became impassioned as he spoke Wednesday, drawing applause from the audience, and he said afterward that the issue wasn’t in his notes but occurred to him in the moment.

“That’s an economic disaster for the state to tell people they’re not welcome here,” he said.

The forum was otherwise cordial, with Walker and Gara agreeing on most issues, including the need to reduce tax credits paid to North Slope oil producers. 

Reducing those credits could free money needed to address housing and child care issues, which both men said are top priorities for the next governor.

A sustainable state fiscal plan is critical, Walker said, if the state wants to pay for other priorities.

“The governor doesn’t make that decision, but the governor provides the leadership for that, and that’s what’s been missing the last four years. There’s been no leadership on the fiscal plan at all,” Walker said, “and I think the Legislature is ready for that.”

Gara said a fiscal plan that includes money for construction funding will provide jobs that encourage people to stay in Alaska.

“The easiest thing to say today is that you’re going to cut the budget, but at some point, it becomes the dumbest thing you can do. Because right now, you’re cutting jobs, you’re cutting the future for people to be able to live in the state anymore,” Gara said.


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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected]