WASILLA -- One of the most hotly contested primary races this year has been unfolding in the Mat-Su Valley, pitting one-term incumbent Sen. Linda Menard against a Tea Party-backed insurgent, Mike Dunleavy.
Menard, 68, a Republican member of the Senate bipartisan coalition targeted by conservative purists in the Valley, comes from a politically centrist background -- her late husband was elected to the Legislature first as a Republican and then as a Democrat. She says one of her political mentors was the long-serving Democratic state senator from Palmer, Jay Kerttula.
Dunleavy, 51, the president of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board and a retired school superintendent from northwest Alaska, says that with so many different Tea Party groups in the United States, he's unsure what being a Tea Party candidate means. The Conservative Patriots Group, the Mat-Su Tea Party organization, has been running ads on his behalf, but he says he's no stereotype.
"I'm not an angry white guy," he told a reporter visiting him at his picturesque homestead beneath the Talkeetna Mountains north of Wasilla. "Do I come across as an angry white guy?"
The winner of the Republican primary on Tuesday will most likely be going to Juneau from Senate District D. No Democrats or independents have filed for the November election.
The sprawling district includes Palmer and Houston but sits north of Wasilla. The district extends north past Talkeetna and west into the Susitna Valley, beyond the Iditarod Trail community of Skwentna.
"It's the first competitive race for senator in 20-some years that I've seen," said Robert Hall, a politically active lawyer in Houston locally famous for his ownership of the Gorilla Fireworks stand. "We have two well-known candidates, two elected officials who are pretty popular just as people, but very contrasty. In the last couple weeks, there's been a really heightened level of interest in the community."
SIMILARITIES IN CANDIDATES
Both Menard and Dunleavy live on large tracts north of Wasilla. The 135-acre Menard homestead is on Memory Lake with a drop-dead view of the Chugach Mountains and fields that she and her husband Curt used to work. Dunleavy has about 50 acres where he and his family pasture a horse and two mules that can pack into the nearby Talkeetnas. He bought the place in 2000.
Both candidates speak with accents from Outside.
Menard was born in Cheboygan, Mich., and grew up in the tiny Upper Peninsula town of L'Anse, where her father was a state conservation officer. She met her husband, Curt, in high school there. They came to Alaska in 1968, where Curt, a pilot, began as an Air Force dentist and later built dental centers in Palmer and Wasilla and a fly-in practice in the Bush. He was first elected to the Alaska House in 1986. She served on the Mat-Su School Board.
Dunleavy, at 6-foot-7, is from Scranton, Pa., and got his degree at what was then College Misericordia (now Misericordia University), a Catholic college near Wilkes-Barre where he played basketball. He moved to Alaska just out of school in 1983 to work in a Southeast logging camp, then on to Koyuk in 1984 to teach in Bering Strait School District. In 1987, he married his wife, Rose, a Native from Noorvik, and moved to the Northwest Arctic Borough School District in Kotzebue to be closer to her home in 1991. He worked his way up to superintendent.
After 20 years as a teacher and public school administrator, Dunleavy retired with a Tier I pension -- the big defined-benefits public employee pension that was available to teachers hired before June 30, 1990. For a candidate campaigning against government spending, he's a bit defensive about his pension.
"That's what the unions are beating over my head -- 'How could you do that and not insist upon this for others?' If Alaska can afford another Tier I, I'd ponder it," he said. "This is about affordability." As it is, pensions are a huge unfunded liability for the state, he said.
That's how he views the larger state fiscal issues, he said. He's not ideologically opposed to government spending, he said, and would consider using state funds to build a mega-project like a gas pipeline -- even if critics would label that "socialism." But spending must match income, he said, and big projects need to prove themselves economically.
Case in point: the infamous Mat-Su "ferry" that can only haul one small street's worth of cars at a time, has no place to dock and is now costing the borough $70,000 a month to maintain and store.
"It may go down in boondoggle history," Dunleavy said.
'BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS'
Because redistricting changed most of the Senate map, 19 of the 20 state senate seats are up for election this year -- nine for two-year terms, 10 for the regular four-year terms. Menard's District D is one of the two-year seats. She said that if elected this year, she won't run again in 2014, when she'll be 70.
"I've known Linda Menard for 30 years," said Valley activist Anne Kilkenny, a Democrat who remembers when the Mat-Su sent more Democrats than Republicans to Juneau. "She's a bridge builder and a peacemaker. She's not a confrontational, angry, aggressive person."
Then Kilkenny added, "Jesus said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers.' It remains to be seen if Valley voters will bless or curse Linda Menard for being a peacemaker."
Menard herself said she's running to complete projects she's been involved in, especially those connected to the Mat Valley's incredible growth, like the Knik Arm Bridge. And that's why she joined the bipartisan coalition -- to ensure she has a voice in the big decisions.
"We need the infrastructure. I've been on (the) transportation (committee) for four years. That's one of the main reason's I'm part of the bipartisan working group. We are the fastest growing area. I need to bring projects back to the Valley. To do that, I need to be a player."
Menard knows she's been mocked for one of the bills she's passed, the one making Feb. 2 Marmot Day, Alaska's version of Groundhog Day. It was all in fun, she said, and took virtually no legislative time away from more weighty issues. It also was a way to honor her husband, she said.
That was ironic, said Tuckerman Babcock, Curt Menard's former staffer who dreamed up the idea when Menard was in the House and languishing in what was then a powerless Republican minority. Reached by phone in Soldotna where he lives now, Babcock said he proposed the idea to Menard as a way to get some free publicity.
Menard introduced the bill in 1987 and, as Babcock expected, it got coverage but went nowhere. In 1988, the next election, Menard switched parties and won as a Democrat and joined the majority, where he was rewarded with the co-chairmanship of the Resources Committee. Menard never got the marmot bill passed but served out that term the House and won another in the Senate, again as a Democrat.
Linda Menard said her husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, but still ran for Mat-Su Borough Mayor in 2006 and was elected. He died in office in 2009 and was buried on a corner of the family homestead next to the grave of son Curt Jr., an orthodontist who died in a plane crash in 2001. Not long after Curt Sr. died, the Legislature, with newly elected Linda Menard in the Senate bipartisan majority, passed the Marmot Day bill and then-Gov. Sarah Palin, an ally of Linda Menard, signed it into law.
"It takes a strong woman to be in this job, let me tell you, because there are so many egos down there," Menard said. "I believe in my heart I'm doing it for the right reasons. I'm doing it for this growth in the Valley, to see some projects through, and not doing it for the money, I'm not doing it for the fame."
But she also recognizes the Valley has changed over the years and has developed a more conservative edge.
"I'm more reasonable, I know the word 'compromise,' and they want someone that's just going to draw the line," she said. "But they still do see me. I'm at all the ribbon cuttings, I'm at all the groundbreakings. I've term (limited) off the hospital (board), I was the first chair of Mat-Su Health Foundation, I was the founder of the Wasilla Chamber of Commerce."
CONSERVATIVE PATRIOTS GROUP BACKING
While Dunleavy doesn't have Menard's long connections to the Valley, he's impressed the Conservative Patriots Group with his work on the school board.
"We think he has a really good opportunity to win the race and remove Menard," said Frank Bettine, a board member of the group. "We don't like Menard because we don't consider her much of a conservative. We can't see that she's done a great deal down in Juneau. I think her greatest contribution was Marmot's Day. We vetted Dunleavy for the school board out here, and we've been really pleased with the good job he's done."
Dunleavy said he has no personal animosity toward Democrats -- his father is one, as is a brother. And on the major issue that House Republicans and Gov. Parnell have been fighting the Senate bipartisan coalition over -- reducing oil taxes -- Dunleavy said he isn't an automatic vote in favor of lower taxes. While Menard backed the House-passed tax bill, HB110, Dunleavy said he would concentrate on taking steps to increase the flow of oil through the pipeline.
"I'm for exploring and doing whatever it takes to increase production. Does that mean it's 110? Maybe, maybe not. Does it mean it's regulatory issues? Maybe, maybe not."
On abortion, Dunleavy is absolute: no abortion, even in the case of rape or incest. The state shouldn't pay for abortions by women who can't afford them, he said. Abortions should only be allowed in the case of a tubal pregnancy where the life of the mother is at risk, he said.
Menard is also against abortions unless the mother's life is in danger, but in the case of rape or incest, "I'm a little wavering," she said. "I did vote for (parental) notification, but I struggle with being judgmental on the others."
The Susitna-Watana hydroelectric project, proposed by the Alaska Energy Authority for the Susitna River east of Talkeetna, would directly affect the district.
Menard said it's "an important project" that would feed energy to the railbelt.
Said Dunleavy: "If I say I'm still studying it, it'll sound like a namby-pamby answer." But that is indeed the case, he said. It comes down to costs and benefits. If the dam would provide cheap electricity, but a gas line from the North Slope would provide almost as cheap electricity, he'd take the pipeline, he said.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.