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New political group backs legislative candidates who favor broad deficit-reduction plan

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: August 10, 2016
  • Published August 9, 2016

A new, well-funded political group hoping the next Legislature will approve fiscal reforms that failed in the current one, will support seven candidates in this year's elections with money from unions, a prominent oil and gas attorney and a pair of telecommunications executives.

Together for Alaska is backing four Democrats, two independent candidates, and one incumbent Republican — Anchorage Rep. Bob Lynn, whose South Anchorage seat is being contested by former Anchorage Assembly member Chris Birch.

Members of the group, which reported Monday it had raised $86,000, want to elect candidates who will tackle the state's budget crisis with a "balanced approach," said Tom Wescott, president of the Alaska Professional Firefighters Association who doubles as Together for Alaska's chair.

"The cost of no action is what's kind of motivated us," said Wescott in a phone interview Tuesday from Prince William Sound, where he was fishing. "No action is kind of inexcusable at this point."

Donors to Together for Alaska are six different unions, which have contributed a collective $41,000; oil and gas attorney Robin Brena, who's donated $35,000; and GCI President Ron Duncan and GCI Chief Operating Officer Greg Chapados, who have each donated $5,000.

Duncan, Chapados and Brena didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday. Brena bought the law firm owned by Gov Bill Walker after Walker's election, and Chapados was chief of staff to the late U.S. Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

Duncan was one of the leaders of a campaign during this year's legislative session that pushed lawmakers to restructure the $54 billion Permanent Fund so the state can use some of its earnings to help close a multibillion dollar state budget gap.

The campaign, which was joined by unions and other businesses, failed. The state Senate approved Walker's legislation to restructure the fund, but the measure was rejected during a special session in June by the House Finance Committee.

The Legislature also failed to approve nearly all of the other measures proposed by Walker as part of a comprehensive deficit-reduction package, which included a personal income tax.

Except for Lynn, a seven-term incumbent from the Hillside and South Anchorage, Together for Alaska is supporting candidates who are challenging members of the House and Senate Republican-led majorities.

Its beneficiaries include Dean Westlake and Zach Fansler, two Democrats running in the Aug. 16 primary against a pair of incumbent Bush Democrats, Reps. Bob Herron of Bethel and Ben Nageak of Barrow, who cross party lines to caucus with the House majority.

A third Democrat supported by the group, Harry Crawford, is running against the winner of the primary between Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt and John Zebutis.

Another beneficiary, Jason Grenn, is running as an independent for the seat held by Rep. Liz Vazquez, R-Anchorage. That election, for House District 22, is crowded, with Vazquez facing David Nees in the Republican primary and then the winner facing Democrat Ed Cullinane, Alaskan Independence candidate Dustin Darden and Green in the fall.

Together for Alaska is also supporting Vince Beltrami, a union leader running as an independent against Anchorage Republican Sen. Cathy Giessel, as well as Democrat Luke Hopkins, the former mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough who's challenging Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole.

Giessel and Coghill both voted for Walker's Permanent Fund restructuring legislation when it passed the Senate in June.

Asked why his group was supporting their challengers, Wescott pointed to the Senate majority's reticence to reduce state tax credits given to major oil producers. And he cited its refusal to approve legislation to guarantee health insurance for the surviving family members of public safety officers killed in the line of duty.

Together for Alaska has already disclosed spending $20,000 on consulting and ads to support primary candidates that include Lynn and Fansler, Wescott said. The group plans to raise significantly more, Wescott added, though he declined to say how much.

"We have a goal — I'll leave it at that," he said.

Meanwhile, a pair of business-backed political groups continue to spend heavily to unseat a pair of moderate House Republicans, Paul Seaton of Homer and Jim Colver of Palmer. Their efforts include direct-mail that attempts to tie Rep. Seaton to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Both candidates face primary challenges from their right. One of Seaton's opponents is Homer Mayor Beth Wythe, while Colver is facing George Rauscher, who's been endorsed by the state Republican Party. Both challengers also have support from the social conservative organization Alaska Family Action.

The two independent business-backed groups spending money on the races are "Wythe is Right! Seaton Must Be Beaten" and "Conservatives for George Rauscher."

Both groups formed last month and are chaired by local Republicans, though nearly all of their funding comes from the Accountability Project in Anchorage.

The Accountability Project, another political group, is housed at the Midtown offices of an oil and mining logistics company, Advanced Supply Chain Integrators, whose clients have included BP and ConocoPhillips.

The pro-Wythe and Rauscher groups on Monday each reported about $20,000 in spending and new debts for ads and research that oppose Colver and Seaton and support Rauscher and Wythe.

That brings their total spending in the two primaries to $70,000 — nearly half the $160,000 the four candidates have reported raising for their own campaigns.

Among the ads funded by the anti-Seaton group is a series of attack mailers. One shows him with Clinton and accuses Seaton of wanting to "burden Alaska families and businesses with unaffordable new taxes and spending" and supporting the "disastrous, expensive Obamacare expansion in Alaska."

Seaton was a supporter of the expansion of the Medicaid health-care program as part of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. But in a phone interview Tuesday, he pointed out the federal government pays for the full costs of the expanded program through this year, before scaling back its support to 90 percent by 2020.

"The distortion of the truth is exactly what's been happening in that flyer and others," he said.

Seaton said the pro-Wythe group has also been making automated telephone calls — including one to his own house.

Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to mention Rep. Lance Pruitt's primary election opponent, John Zebutis, in the House District 27 race. It also didn't list all the candidates running for the District 22 contest: Republican primary opponents Rep. Liz Vazquez and David Nees, along with Democrat Ed Cullinane, Alaskan Independence Party Dustin Darden and independent Jason Grenn. The story also mis-stated the amount of money spent by two independent expenditure groups supporting candidates Beth Wythe and George Rauscher. The groups have spent a total of roughly $70,000, not $90,000, as the story said.


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