Alaska in Brief

Q&A with Alaska Senate District J candidate Forrest Dunbar

By: - July 28, 2022 12:31 am
The Senate chambers are seen at the Alaska State Capitol on Friday, May 13, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Senate chambers are seen at the Alaska State Capitol on Friday, May 13, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska Beacon asked Alaska’s legislative candidates to answer a 15-question survey about their positions on a variety of issues. Read all of their responses here. Answers have not been edited.

Forrest Dunbar, Democratic candidate from Anchorage

Yes/No questions

The Alaska Constitution allows legislators to call a constitutional convention at any time. Are you interested in calling a convention?


Would you be willing to join a coalition majority in which the opposite political party controls a majority of seats?


Should new public employees have access to a pension?


Should the state take over the federal permitting process that regulates construction in wetlands?


Should Juneteenth be a state holiday?


Open-ended questions

How should the state of Alaska set the amount of the Permanent Fund dividend each year?

The PFD is critical to Alaskans, and I’ll work to preserve and grow it for the short and long-term. It is arguably the most effective poverty-reducing program in Alaska’s history, and is particularly important to the seniors on fixed incomes and working families in my district.

The Legislature has been wrestling with the question of how to set the amount since the Supreme Court ruled the PFD is subject to annual appropriation. We need a fiscally responsible plan that takes the PFD amount out of the hands of politicians, so families can plan around a reliable PFD. The plan needs to balance short-term needs and a long-term vision to protect and grow the Permanent Fund, while delivering the largest, sustainable PFDs possible.

What’s the biggest need in your district, and how would you address it?

The biggest needs in my district at the moment are more affordable housing and improved economic security. Inflation and rising cost of living has taken a heavy toll, particularly as valuations have spiked here more so than other parts of the city. That’s one of the reasons I will fight so hard to keep School Bond Debt Reimbursement in the State budget– the Governor and Legislature’s failure to fund that commitment was the largest driver of property tax increases in 2020 and 2021 in Anchorage. Furthermore, several times during my work at the local level, discussing possible ordinances to make it easier to build housing, we have come across state laws that prevented us from taking action, particularly in the realm of tax incentives. I will be targeting those laws for change. Finally, I will continue to fight for large, sustainable dividends, and further energy relief checks, knowing as I do the huge impact they have on working families and seniors in my district, who need them to off-set rising prices.

What policies and laws should Alaska follow with regard to abortion?

The right to a safe, legal abortion must be protected in Alaska. The Alaska Constitution’s privacy provisions clearly protect abortion and bodily autonomy, but we must turn back any laws that chip away at that right (“TRAP” laws, for example). And it is yet another reason to reject a constitutional convention, as that right would be directly threatened.

How should the state reduce the threat of gun violence and mass shootings?

Alaska is a state where guns are an important, legitimate part of many people’s lives, especially in our rural communities. I am a gun owner, from a gun-owning family, who trains and qualifies on a service weapon for the Army National Guard. That being said, I hope we as a society can agree that guns need to be kept out of the hands of dangerous criminals and people with certain, specific mental health issues that make them a threat to themselves and others.

So in addition to fully funding mental health services, including the Mental Health First Responders program I helped create on the Assembly, I also support laws that prevent violent abusers from owning firearms, and am glad that Congress closed the “boyfriend loophole.” I would also support a well-crafted Red Flag Law modeled after legislation that has been passed by Republican legislatures in states such as Florida and Indiana, with adequate due process protections, so that police officers could petition a court to temporarily restrict access to firearms for a person in crisis.

How much should a legislator’s faith or religion determine state law and policy?

Every person’s faith helps guide their actions. I am a member of the Jewish faith, and the concept of Tikkun Olam– healing the suffering of the world– certainly plays a role in my thinking. At the same time, we need to maintain a firm, legal separation of Church and State. No legislator should be imposing their religious beliefs on another person or group through the law, nor can we violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by using public monies to proselytize.

What should the state do to improve retention of public employees, including teachers?

While there are a number of things we should do to improve retention, including reducing class sizes in the case of teachers, the best way to recruit and retain employees would be passage of HB 220 or a similar measure that restores defined benefit retirements. Both of my parents retired with pensions, and in my father’s case I remember him telling me explicitly that one of the reasons he chose to remain at his job with Fish and Game was the long-term security of a defined benefit.

What does an ideal state ferry system look like?

An ideal ferry system would connect the coastal communities in Alaska in an affordable, reliable way, while serving as an engine of economic growth and sustainable living. As someone who spent much of my school-age years in Cordova, I understand how critical the ferry system is for bringing in groceries, vehicles, visitors, high school sports teams, and everything else needed for life in a town disconnected from the road system. While we certainly want to make ferries as self-sustaining as possible, the Marine Highway System cannot be viewed as a for-profit enterprise, any more than the rest of the highway system in Alaska. Gas taxes do not nearly cover the roads we drive on, and the population would rightly balk if every highway in and out of Anchorage was a toll road with a massive fare. I know there has been discussion of creating a public corporation for the AMHS, separate from the DOT, and I am open to that concept as well, so long as it meets the above criteria for affordability and reliability for Alaskans.

What, if any, changes does the state need to make to ensure voting is equitable and secure?

Voting is a fundamental right for Alaskans. Recently, we have seen our state agencies threatened with cyber attacks, so protecting the Department of Elections from those types of attacks must be a first-order priority. Second, I support a permanent absentee voter list for those who wish to sign up and be mailed their ballot, without the need to re-apply every year (so long as their address does not change). Third, we have seen at the Muni level how the State’s voter data continues to have gaps and errors, while being mandatory for use by our Clerk. In response, we should both clean up the State voter data and give locales like Anchorage the option to maintain their own voter rolls for their local elections. Finally, we need a process for ballot curing at the State level, like we have in Anchorage, as we saw how the lack of such a system caused a large number of ballots to be thrown out in this summer’s special election.

What do you intend to do about the poor returns of salmon in the Yukon and Kuskokwim drainages, and what are the main causes of the problems?

First and foremost, we need to listen to the leaders and community members in the region. Indigenous knowledge and tribal leadership will need to play a role in any equitable solution. Salmon are the lifeblood of these towns and villages, and the poor returns harm communities all the way up to the headwaters, including Eagle, where I lived as a small child. I will certainly consider reducing bycatch, though I suspect that that alone will not return these runs to their prior strength. Some science points to rising ocean temperatures as one of the main culprits. I know there is now a Bycatch Review Task Force, and I look forward to its final report in November of 2022, and will advocate that the governor use the State of Alaska’s leadership position on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to make sure Alaska’s (not Washington’s) interests are duly represented on matters of fishery management, including bycatch. Finally, we certainly need to continue to fund scientific investigation at ADF&G and elsewhere and determine why these rivers have been hit so much harder than even nearby runs.

What constitutional amendments, if any, do you support?

I would support a constitutional amendment to remove Article 1 § 25, which forbids gay marriage. If the current, far-right majority on the Supreme Court overturns the Obergefell decision, or nullifies a federal gay marriage statute, this provision could invalidate thousands of marriages in our state, disintegrating families.

I would also likely support a constitutional amendment related to veto overrides, as the current structure is tilted far too heavily towards the executive.

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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].