Forrest Dunbar, attorney and lifelong Alaskan, will kick off his campaign for United States Congress on Saturday, March 15 with a speech at Mt. Eccles Elementary in Cordova. Dunbar, 29, faces Anchorage businessman Matt Moore in the Democratic primary, with the winner squaring off against Don "Teflon Don" Young, the fourth-longest serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
A homegrown candidate, Dunbar plans to emphasize his rural Alaskan experience: lessons learned from summers on a seiner, in a cannery and in the Interior fighting wildfires. He complements his local upbringing with an education background outside the state, including a law degree from Yale, a master's in public policy from Harvard and time in the military and on Capitol Hill. Despite his age, Dunbar considers his experience an asset in his run for Congress, which will focus on gay rights, campaign finance reform, education cost and resource development.
"I think people in Alaska are looking for a genuine alternative to Don Young," he said. "Given my age, background and policy positions, I'm a genuine alternative to Don Young."
Dunbar has dreamed of working in government since he was a young boy living with his parents and younger sister in a small house in Eagle without running water. They traveled for supplies sometimes in their pickup truck but mostly by snowmobile, and ate caribou that Dunbar's father, Roger, hunted. Dunbar's father, who at the time was an official with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, moved the family to Cordova after the Exxon Valdez spill to study the effects. They lived in a camper shell behind the pickup before renting an apartment, and then bought a house on 1st Street. Dunbar worked as a paperboy for The Cordova Times, loved sports and J.R.R. Tolkien, and devoured news even in elementary school.
"At a young age we were both into politics and social issues," said Zach Kopchak, an old friend. "We would discuss the news even as elementary school kids."
Dunbar developed an interest in policy after joining the Future Problem Solvers, a program for kids from middle through high school in which teachers give them a public issue to solve as a group. Participating until his senior year at Cordova High, Dunbar and his team reached the highest level, the international competition. Example issues included a newly developed crowd control weapon that shot ice pellets at demonstrators, and a data-collecting chip in smart cars that brought up privacy concerns.
"He was already thinking about how to solve today's problems 15 years ago," said Darla Church, a teacher who ran the program. "He's had an interest in society since he was really young."
Dunbar graduated valedictorian. He delivered his speech as a poem in iambic pentameter modeled after Robert Service's The Cremation of Sam McGee.
"It was horribly embarrassing and nerdy in retrospect, but I think it was well-received," he said.
Dunbar attended American University in D.C. on a full scholarship, spending summers back in Alaska working in the aforementioned jobs. Commercial fishing, he said, taught him the enormous personal and financial risk fishermen take every season. Firefighting with the Northstar Fire Crew in Fairbanks taught him about the Interior and exposed him to Alaskans of all types.
He made his Capitol Hill debut interning for Sen. Frank Murkowski; and later, worked as a part-time staffer for Congresswoman Madeline Bordallo (D-Guam). "Some of the issues that Guam faces are similar to the issues Alaska faces," he said. "It's outside the contiguous United States, and is isolated in many ways."
This experience led Dunbar to draft a policy proposal reforming the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which harms states that rely on waterborne shipping. His proposal helped win him the Harry S. Truman scholarship on top of the Boren Scholarship for study in Japan. He was also a Rhodes scholarship district finalist.
"It is unusual in my 14 years of experience for a student to receive so many significant awards," wrote Paula Warrick, the director of American University's Office of Merit Awards, in an email. Warrick remembered Dunbar's "sparkling intellect," and was "struck by his compassion and his desire to improve the lives of others."
After college, Dunbar served in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, and said he came out more conservative than when he joined. "The Peace Corps showed me what I don't want to do. People would say, 'That's all well and good, but you're not from here.' I want to do policy work where that accusation can never be leveled at me. Nobody can tell me I'm not from Alaska."
After earning his master's at the Harvard Kennedy School, Dunbar went on to Yale Law where, according to professor Kate Stith, he focused on Alaska, particularly federal ownership of land. During his first summer, he returned to Anchorage to represent low-income families at Alaska Legal Services, and during his second, worked at two local law firms representing oil companies and Native corporations.
After law school, Dunbar remained in Anchorage, spending a year on a fellowship with the Office of Public Advocacy, and worked as a public defender. He did research on Alaska's drug policy. "The war on drugs currently fought is a hugely expensive failure," he said. "It's not a criminal justice matter, but rather a public health crisis."
Dunbar was recently commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Alaska National Guard, training for four months this winter in Fort Benning, Ga. In Charlottesville, Va., he completed training as a judge advocate in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps.
His time on Capitol Hill showed Dunbar the dysfunction in Congress, and compelled him to run for office. "I'm optimistic that if people can win elections and get the incumbents out of there, we can start to make changes," he said. "I don't think [Don Young] is an effective representative for Alaska. That's problematic when Alaska has only one representative."
Although his Alaska upbringing and values shaped his worldview, he said, his time on the East Coast allowed him to build a network outside the state that he can leverage. Without his experience outside Alaska, he said he would not have been able to make these friendships. Dunbar, at 29, is only two years younger than Don Young was when elected mayor of Fort Yukon in 1964.
"I have more federal experience than Don Young when he was first elected," he said.
Dunbar said that he and the other Democratic contender, Matt Moore, agreed to run against Young, not against each other.
With a burgeoning campaign that will rely on social media, Dunbar must pick issues to define his effort. He expressed frustration at the lack of opportunity for young people to join the political discourse in Alaska, and said his campaign will seek to remedy that. He plans to champion marriage equality and resource development, and fight student loan debt.
"The central issue Alaska has to grapple with at the state and federal level is: What will our economic future look like?" he said. "How do we keep good, high paying jobs in Alaska, and our best and brightest here as well?"
The answer, he thinks, is addressing the problems facing millennials: crushing student loan debt prohibiting young people from starting families and businesses and buying homes.
Intolerance of the gay community frustrates Dunbar, whose sister is gay and had to marry her wife out of state. "The majority of Alaskans believe that you can love who you want to love," he said. "Most of all, Alaskans want to be left the hell alone. Because of that, I'm not afraid to take these positions."
Confident in his grassroots fundraising efforts, Dunbar said he plans to spend most of his money traveling to communities across Alaska. He's confident he will emerge from the primary; and that after he wins, he'll see an uptick in fundraising.
"Because it's my first campaign, I have very little name recognition," he said. "But we're going to change that quickly."