While the increasingly rambunctious race for U.S. Senate is getting all the attention, the contest for Alaska governor is heating up too.
Republican Gov. Sean Parnell and Democratic nominee Ethan Berkowitz faced off Monday before the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce with questions about a gas pipeline, oil taxes, income taxes, federal health care reform, the economy -- and the race for U.S. Senate.
Parnell is seeking to win outright the office he stepped into last year when then-Gov. Sarah Palin quit midway through her term. Berkowitz, a former state lawmaker who had a reputation as a quick-witted scrapper, is making his third run at statewide office after coming up short four years ago as Tony Knowles' running mate on the Democratic ticket and two years after that in the race for U.S. House. Also at Monday's forum at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center was William "Billy" Toien, the anti-tax Libertarian candidate.
Still on the sidelines is Bill Walker, the GOP primary race runner-up who is mulling whether to mix things up as a write-in candidate for governor. Walker, who framed his primary campaign around a vision for a gas pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez, said he'll make his announcement Wednesday. Among other issues, he said he's been vetting possible lieutenant governor candidates.
Monday's event was billed as a forum, not a debate. Still, there were several spicy exchanges.
"Talk about your support for the federal health care legislation and why you think that's important for Alaska," Parnell asked Berkowitz.
Berkowitz said he didn't support requirements for individuals to purchase health insurance but wants people to have access to health care.
"Sean, I appreciate that you keep wanting to throw out Obama and health care like some kind of schoolyard taunt," Berkowitz said. "But that's not what this is about. This is about coming up with real answers. Because if we allow this contest for governor to devolve into name-calling without suggesting concrete results, we're not doing this office justice."
Parnell had pointed out earlier that Berkowitz campaigned for then-candidate Barack Obama.
As to health care, Berkowitz said he opposed Parnell's veto this year of an expansion of the Denali KidCare health program to cover more children and pregnant women "for what I found to be somewhat astounding reasons." Parnell has said he couldn't support it because the program covers abortion.
Berkowitz also said small businesses should be able to pool together for cheaper health insurance. Alaskans should be able to buy insurance across state lines. Alaska needs to "grow" more health care professionals in-state.
"But that requires someone with a vision of where we're going," Berkowitz said.
Parnell played to the Chamber crowd, talking about his vision for getting a natural gas pipeline, tax credits to encourage new oil and gas exploration and other incentives for business.
He said his first preference would be a "Y" line, bringing natural gas to Valdez for export as well as transporting it outside the state to sell elsewhere in North America. The state process already in motion allows for that and needs about six more months to determine whether it will lead to the long-coveted pipeline, Parnell said.
After the debate, his campaign seized on what it characterized as "waffling" by Berkowitz on his proposal to negotiate oil field royalty rates field by field, saying that the Democrat had backed off on dramatic reforms that would throw out the tax scheme for existing fields.
Berkowitz's campaign has said he never wanted to scrap the tax system for existing, producing fields until the idea has been tested on new leases or old leases that weren't producing.
PLEDGE AGAINST TAXES
Toien told the crowd that "government is the great crippler. They come along and break your legs with tremendous costs, then come along with a crutch or an incentive and say, 'See, you couldn't make it without us.' "
He pulled out a copy of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, promising to oppose all tax increases, and signed it with a flourish. Parnell said he had already signed one. Toien asked Berkowitz to sign too. The crowd hooted and clapped.
"Not today," the Democrat said. But when Toien asked Berkowitz if he supported an Alaska income tax, Berkowitz said, "No."
Berkowitz brought a prop too, a propane tank.
"This is the only gas that's been shipped from the North Slope to Southcentral," Berkowitz said. His running mate, Diane Benson, drove from Prudhoe Bay to deliver it. Should Alaskans get the chance to invest in a gas pipeline? he asked Parnell. Berkowitz has been pushing such an opportunity.
"We need more than a propane tank. We need a pipeline," Parnell answered. The state process in place, with bids coming in from oil and gas producers to ship gas, needs time to work, he said.
"And Ethan wants to sweep all that aside when we may have a 'Y' line there, that goes to North America, and goes to Valdez," Parnell said.
THE SENATE QUESTION
The candidates also were asked who they would rather work with in the U.S. Senate: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican primary winner Joe Miller or Democratic nominee Scott McAdams. Murkowski is running a risky write-in campaign after losing to tea party favorite Miller in the primary.
"These are always tough questions because as Alaskans we're all so close," Parnell said. "I'll just answer directly. I put myself through a primary because I believe in the primary system. I believe it weeds out who the voters don't want. And they change their mind sometimes. It's a tough thing. But I do support my party's nominee for the U.S. Senate."
He didn't say Miller but everyone knew who he meant. There was a slight groan from some parts of the crowd.
After the forum, Parnell said he didn't want to get into specifics about the Senate race. "I'm not here to discuss policies, because I love Lisa personally."
Berkowitz said he'd be happy with either Murkowski or McAdams.
"I worked closely with Lisa Murkowski when I was in the state Legislature and I'd work with her in the United States Senate," he said. "I'd be happy to do that again. I know Scott McAdams well. He's a good man. And so either Murkowski or McAdams would be good by me."
Berkowitz noted afterward that the question wasn't who he planned to vote for in the Senate race.
So who is that?
"Whoever can beat Joe Miller," Berkowitz answered.
Toien said he supported Miller.
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER