Dunleavy defends record against Gara and Walker attacks in rapid-fire Alaska debate for governor
Candidates offer views on issues ranging from abortion to fisheries, with less than three weeks until Election Day
The four candidates for Alaska governor are seen in this composite image. From left to right are Republican incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy, independent former Gov. Bill Walker, Democratic candidate Les Gara, and Republican candidate Charlie Pierce. (Photo composite)
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, defended his record against a barrage of criticism from challengers Les Gara, a Democrat, and Bill Walker, an independent, in a fast-paced hourlong debate on Wednesday, hosted by Alaska Public Media, Alaska’s News Source and KTOO. Also present was Republican candidate Charlie Pierce, who was favorable toward Dunleavy.
begins Oct. 24, and absentee ballots are already being sent to voters.
Dunleavy pointed to the statewide crime rate reaching a 41-year low; a cleared backlog in sexual assault kits; a smaller operating budget outside of public safety and education; and no new taxes in his first term.
“Alaska is better off today than it was four years ago,” Dunleavy said.
He referred to his background as a school superintendent and school board president, saying, “I know education,” and that he could meet with school districts to deal with their budget problems.
Many districts have said they must cut services because the state’s education budget has not kept up with the rate of inflation. Some school systems, including Anchorage’s, have said they are considering whether to close schools.
Gara was sharply critical of Dunleavy’s approach. Gara noted that Dunleavy proposed cutting roughly a quarter of state funding for public education in his first budget, released in 2019. The governor later reversed his position on those cuts.
“That would have been the biggest disaster in Alaska history,” Gara said, adding that while Dunleavy says he knows education, “he doesn’t do education.”
Gara said that by eliminating oil production tax credits, the state could improve state services and the permanent fund dividend.
“We can build a state where we honor each other again, where we honor our first people again,” Gara said.
Walker, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, defended his record in that term by emphasizing that the state closed three-quarters of a deficit created by low oil prices. He said he would work with the Legislature to complete a fiscal plan. And he said he would aggressively pursue federal funding, adding that the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill presents the state’s best opportunity since construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
“I will rebuild Alaska,” he said.
Walker criticized Dunleavy’s approach to reducing state spending.
“You have literally taken a wrecking ball to our state,” Walker said.
Walker and Gara criticized Dunleavy’s absence from most debates this year, with Walker saying that absence was disrespectful to residents outside of Anchorage, the only city where Dunleavy has attended debates. Dunleavy said he was busy as governor.
“How many debates do you need to be able to get your points across?” Dunleavy said.
Pierce, who finished fourth in the primary, repeatedly criticized the federal government. After Gara noted that people were leaving the state under Dunleavy, Pierce said it would be an issue no matter who is governor as long as the federal government opposed resource development projects.
“We got a federal government that’s working against the state of Alaska,” he said, adding: “We need to get it under control.”
In the hourlong debate, the candidates addressed topics quickly, in 45-second-to-one-minute answers.
On abortion, Gara said he was the only pro-choice candidate and that Dunleavy would take away Alaskans’ privacy rights. The Alaska Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the privacy clause of the state constitution protects abortion rights. A change in that clause — or a different ruling from the court — would be required to restrict or eliminate abortion here.
Walker said he would veto legislation “that comes between a woman and her doctor.”
Dunleavy said that unless Alaskans change the state constitution, there would be no change. The incumbent has previously said he would introduce a constitutional amendment on whether there will or won’t be a right to an abortion, and has said he supports a constitutional convention that could make such a change, as an amendment on whether it’s a right.
And Pierce said he opposes abortion and that women should have other options, like adoption.
On public safety, Dunleavy emphasized a decrease in the rate of rape in Alaska last year, after it increased during the Walker administration.
According to the latest available state crime statistics, Alaska had 151.9 rapes per 100,000 residents in 2021, one of the highest rates in the country, though comparisons are difficult because of incomplete reporting in other states. The 2021 rate is down 2.6% from 2020 but up slightly from 2019, Dunleavy’s first full year in office. It is down significantly from 2018, Walker’s last year in office, but higher than it was during some points of Walker’s term.
Walker responded that opioids drove a national crime increase, while crime declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he supported forming compacts with tribes in which they would take on more responsibility for public safety.
Pierce said troopers and other officers should have a bigger presence in rural Alaska.
Gara said the state has more than 50 communities without police and said it is unacceptable that it may take two days for law enforcement to respond to a crime.
On school funding, Gara pointed to a record of being the only candidate to consistently support having school funding keep pace with inflation, adding that “our schools are in our worst crisis in Alaska history thanks to this governor.”
Walker also said the state must invest more in education, saying that education is “swirling the drain in terms of how bad it’s gotten” under Dunleavy.
Dunleavy said he took education seriously, but that it’s also a school district issue.
And Pierce said education funding is largely a matter of school districts allocating available money.
Gara was the only candidate to support any new tax revenue, from oil companies. Dunleavy said new revenue would come from future oil projects; Walker said he hopes taxes will be unnecessary with a long-term budget plan; and Pierce said he would always make more cuts before having a tax.
Addressing declines in salmon returns and crab harvests, Dunleavy spoke about work being done by his task force looking at the issue of bycatch, which refers to fish that are caught incidentally while fishers are pursuing other species. “We’ll bring all groups together to figure out what the approach should be,” he said, adding that his administration would do everything it can.
Pierce said fish management should never be politically driven and that the state needs more biologists to understand the best course.
Gara said Dunleavy has failed to act during a crisis in fisheries. “He has the council that can act,” explaining that the governor members to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates fisheries in waters more than 3 miles offshore.
Walker said Dunleavy should have attended the fisheries debate in Kodiak to learn more about what’s happening. “I don’t think we can task-force this thing away,” he said.
On the high cost of energy in rural Alaska, Walker said oil in Alaska that stays in the state should cost much less than it does, and he advocated a plan to subsidize fuel prices here. Gara said: “It’s time we start treating rural Alaskans equally again.” He criticized Dunleavy’s past plan to eliminate the Power Cost Equalization Endowment Fund, while Dunleavy responded that he has supported PCE funding in each of his budgets. Dunleavy had proposed making PCE funding a line item in the budget rather than having a designated funding source.
In response to a question about Matanuska-Susitna Borough schools’ exclusion of transgender students from communal bathrooms, Gara said a high percentage of transgender youth consider suicide and that he would “tell them they are equal.”
Walker said he wouldn’t take away rights from students, adding that he’s a big believer in local school boards.
Dunleavy praised the state’s diversity and said there would be no discrimination under his administration.
And Pierce echoed supporters of the Mat-Su policy: “Boys should use the boys bathrooms and girls should use the girls bathrooms.”
During a segment in which candidates asked other candidates questions, Dunleavy asked Walker if he regretted his administration’s relationship with China. Walker responded that he had worked with former President Donald Trump on finding a liquefied natural gas market in China, adding that China is Alaska’s largest trading partner and oil export market under Dunleavy.
At the end of the debate, Dunleavy and Pierce urged voters to rank themselves first and the other Republican second. Gara and Walker made similar statements in earlier debates, urging their voters to rank the other second.
The governor candidates, as well as those for U.S. Senate and U.S. House, are scheduled to debate each other again on Saturday at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Dunleavy has said he would introduce a constitutional amendment on whether there will or won’t be a right to abortion.
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