Nation’s political divide is the focus of Alaska U.S. House debate

Candidates also discuss energy, mental health, fish and the pandemic

By: - October 26, 2022 10:26 pm
Sarah Palin, Mary Peltola, Nick Begich and Chris Bye stand at the end of the 2022 Debate for the State for Alaska's sole U.S. House seat on Oct. 26, 2022, in Anchorage. (Screenshot of Alaska Public Media livestream)

Sarah Palin, Mary Peltola, Nick Begich and Chris Bye stand at the end of the 2022 Debate for the State for Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat on Oct. 26, 2022, in Anchorage. (Screenshot of Alaska Public Media livestream)

The four candidates to be Alaska’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives zeroed in on the United States’ political divisions but came up with very different answers about what should be done about it in a media-sponsored debate on Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat elected to fill the remainder of the late Congressman Don Young’s term, said it’s time for politicians to stop vilifying people in the other party and that partisanship is the No. 1 threat to the country in foreign and domestic policy.

“We have a tradition now in America of tearing one another down just to get into office, and this is just so normal we take it for granted,” Peltola said, adding that it wasn’t as normal when she got started in politics in the 1990s. “This is not the foundation that our country is built on and we need more peacemakers so that the day after the election, half the country doesn’t feel like they lost. We are all going to win. We’re all in this together. We’re all Americans.”

Former Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, quoted Abraham Lincoln saying that the country would never lose a war, but added that the U.S. could now be crushed by internal division if it gets any more rancorous. She called for a return to “constitutional principles.” In response to a question from Peltola about their working relationship when Peltola was in the state House and Palin was governor, Palin said they could serve as an example to others.

“In this age of so much division, so much politics of personal destruction and lies – in campaigns especially – it’s quite disheartening,” she said, before turning to Peltola. “So it is heartening to get to stand beside somebody who gets it. Maybe it’s kind of that Alaskan chick thing, you know? Tough Alaskans: commercial fished; were pregnant at the same time in office; took some heat for that, too.”

Republican candidate Nick Begich III said there are two teams in the country: Republicans who want to give people more freedom and Democrats who want to take it away – and that Peltola has been a part of that.

“You’ve got the Democrats, who are about control: control of your freedoms, control of your actions, centralized authority, the federal government telling you what to do,” he said. “And you’ve got the Republicans that are about decentralizing control: local control, control with the states, and giving you the authority to make the decisions that you want to in your life. This is the basis – this is the genesis – for the political division that you see.”

Libertarian Chris Bye pointed his finger at both parties for causing division. But he also expressed concern about the parties coming together as well.

“I’ll be honest with you. Just about every Alaskan is terrified when they hear ‘bipartisan.’ What that really means is both parties are getting together to gang up on taxpayers,” he said, adding: “I don’t mean to vilify both parties, but just look at the track record: $31 trillion of debt and I haven’t seen any goodness out of it. Or the infrastructure bill: It’s a boondoggle.”

Energy

Energy was another running theme of the debate, from the impact of energy prices on inflation to expanding the use of renewable energy sources in rural Alaska to the candidates’ shared support for oil drilling.

Palin said President Joe Biden and the Democratic party are refusing to acknowledge that people are suffering from a recession. She returned to a slogan from the 2008 Republican National Convention, where she became the vice presidential nominee.

“We need to ‘drill, baby, drill.’ Energy costs are the driver of inflation – energy costs, which affect absolutely everything that we do in America, everything that we consume – oil and gas: It touches that. So if we have more supply of oil – our own clean, domestic USA oil, coming from Alaska ideally, instead of, hat in hand, asking foreign countries to pump and produce for us their dirty, dangerous sources of oil.”

Begich also pinned the state’s economic problems on the Biden administration and the Democrats. He noted Biden’s opposition to oil development in his 2020 campaign. Both he and Palin said Biden is creating a fake energy crisis.

“You end traditional energy in this state, you end Alaska,” he said. “That’s a huge threat to us. And this is the leader of the Democrat party that is pushing this agenda on us.”

Bye noted the high cost of energy and denounced federal interference. In particular, he noted the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of clean air standards in Fairbanks.

“The EPA came in and said, ‘oh, by the way, they can’t use wood to heat their homes. It has to be kiln-dried wood, not just wood off the forest. So families in Fairbanks are squeezed between federal bureaucracy and federal regulations,” he said.

Mental health

The candidates fielded two questions about mental health.

Joshua Pak, a sophomore at Polaris K-12 School in Anchorage, asked how the candidates would prioritize youth mental health in the wake of the pandemic.

Peltola talked about the importance of providing mental telehealth counseling by improving access to broadband statewide. Begich advised young people to put their phones down and befriend others, especially those who are lonely. Bye said he sees mental health challenges growing in Fairbanks as it grows darker and called for solutions from Alaska Native corporations – private companies that are not social service providers – and the Alaska Mental Health Trust’s use of the land it owns.

Another question was about the high rate of suicides among veterans. Begich’s answer highlighted the importance of destigmatizing mental health issues. Bye noted that he is the only combat veteran in the race and emphasized the importance of interpersonal connections. Palin called the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care “a disgrace.” And Peltola outlined a new office aimed at providing food security to vets, and talked about the importance of fully funding VA physical and mental health care.

Fish, COVID-19, student debt and Ukraine

Regarding the state’s fisheries problems, Peltola called for a combined approach of more research to explore the causes and action to stop the loss of salmon, halibut and crab through bycatch of trawlers targeting other fish. Begich also highlighted bycatch and said the details of reauthorizing the federal law regulating fisheries are important. Bye said the fishing industry should be more involved in reducing bycatch. And Palin blamed a lack of enforcement by the federal government on fishing by foreign vessels.

On the COVID-19 pandemic, Begich said the federal response “was not science, but was political science,” with unelected people deciding how people would live. Bye said politicians hid behind bureaucrats. And Palin said it was more about control than it was about the coronavirus.

Peltola was the only candidate to say she was disappointed that there was a debate over whether the pandemic was real. She said those who told lies on TV and the radio “caused a lot of division on things that should be an open-and-shut case, like whether or not we have a pandemic.”

All four said they were opposed to any vaccine mandates. Alaska, like every other state, has required children who attend school to receive various vaccines for several decades, in an attempt to end diseases that have caused millions of deaths. Peltola again differed from the other candidates in expressing concern about the health impact of future pandemics.

On Biden’s plan to eliminate up to $20,000 per person in student debt, Begich, Palin and Bye all said they opposed, while Peltola said she supported it, with the qualification that it also relieves vocational-technical education debt.

Begich, Palin and Bye said they wanted to reduce aid to Ukraine, while Peltola said she isn’t prepared to specify the level of relief, adding that the country should support Ukraine and oppose Russia.

On a lighter question, the candidates were asked what they read for leisure. Bye said fishing books and science fiction. Begich said his little leisure reading is on financial news. Palin said she doesn’t sit down with whatever free time she has, while Peltola said she hasn’t had any free time lately and has only read for work.

The hourlong Debate for the State was hosted by Alaska Public Media, Alaska’s News Source and KTOO. The organizations hosted a debate for the candidates for governor a week earlier. And they will host a similar debate for the U.S. Senate candidates on Thursday.

Correction: This story has been updated to include the word “feel,” which was inadvertently dropped, in this sentence. “This is not the foundation that our country is built on and we need more peacemakers so that the day after the election, half the country doesn’t feel like they lost.”

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Andrew Kitchenman
Andrew Kitchenman

Andrew Kitchenman has covered state government in Alaska since 2016, serving as the Capitol reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO before joining the Alaska Beacon. Before this, he covered state and local governments on the East Coast – primarily in New Jersey – for more than 15 years. He enjoys reading, watching movies and walking around Anchorage.

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