Senate candidates square off in Kodiak at lively debate

KODIAK — Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski squared off with her challengers Wednesday for the first time, fielding criticism and questions from Democrat Ray Metcalfe and independents Margaret Stock and Breck Craig at the biennial Kodiak fish debate.

Moderators quizzed the candidates on nuts-and-bolts fisheries policy during the lively, two-hour discussion at the port town. And a few only-in-Alaska questions were thrown in as well, like when the candidates were asked to name their personal seafood preferences.

Murkowski, who sported Xtratuf boots and a fish pin, was quick to demonstrate her familiarity with fish-specific issues like discharge rules, Alaska's aging fishing crews, and Canadian mines that threaten the state's fish habitat. But her rivals tried to put her on the defensive by touting their own fisheries experience, highlighting Congress' dysfunction, and stressing how seriously they take climate change, which threatens Alaska fisheries through the process of ocean acidification.

Joe Miller, the Republican-turned-Libertarian candidate, did not attend even after criticizing the incumbent senator for "hiding" from the public by not participating in more debates.

Miller, who was the closest challenger to Murkowski in a recent Alaska Dispatch News poll, was on a campaign swing in Southeast Alaska. A spokesman, Randy DeSoto, said in an email that "talking with voters" was the best use of Miller's time "rather than talking to Lisa Murkowski donors and supporters."

He pointed out that two of the debate moderators had donated money to Murkowski's campaign, and that one of the sponsors of the event, United Fishermen of Alaska, had endorsed the incumbent senator.

The remaining candidates were left to discuss their ideas about and plans for the industry that's the state's largest private-sector employer before an audience of about 150 people at Kodiak High School. Moderators directed most of the debate, though the candidates were also given a chance to ask each other questions.


Stock, an immigration attorney who's also worked for Trident Seafoods, impressed some audience members with her depth of fisheries knowledge, pressing Murkowski on why she hadn't made more progress on getting the U.S. State Department to press the Canadians on the country's mines in areas that drain into Alaska rivers.

Stock arrived in Kodiak on Monday, holding a pair of fundraisers and sitting for interviews with local media.

"I think she's a quick study," said Democrat Andy Edgerly, a 60-year-old metal fabricator who said he was likely to vote for Stock. One of Edgerly's friends, 68-year-old Oliver Holm, said he was still trying to make up his mind between Stock and the incumbent.

Murkowski used one of her questions to highlight Stock's upbringing in New England — a region  that's struggling to rebuild its stocks after decades of overfishing.

And Murkowski demonstrated her own facility with the issues facing Alaska fishermen, from federal rules that could penalize them for rinsing their decks to fears that President Barack Obama could put some habitat off-limits to fishing by designating areas as national monuments.

The two other candidates, Metcalfe and Craig, both played up their credentials as outsiders. Metcalfe is a real estate broker and former Republican state legislator — though he hasn't held office since the 1980s — while Craig works for telecommunications company GCI.

Metcalfe and Craig were often in agreement, arguing that some of Alaska's permitted fisheries should be turned back to common ownership. But they also occasionally betrayed a lack of familiarity with some of the Senate's institutions — both said they would try to serve on the Ways and Means Committee, which only exists in the U.S. House.

Stock had a gaffe of her own, referring to Kodiak at one point as being part of "Southeast Alaska."

But the crowd didn't seem to mind, with audience members taking particular enjoyment with the candidates' responses to the moderators' questions in a series of lightning rounds, in which answers were supposed to be kept to fewer than 10 words.

Their favorite seafoods? Stock likes rockfish, Metcalfe prefers crab, Craig is a "salmon man," and Murkowski wants "halibut and salmon, any way it's prepared." (Murkowski's answer prompted a rejoinder from Stock, who complained: "That's two fish — not fair.")

The candidates were also asked which fishery they'd want to participate in. Metcalfe said he'd go after salmon. Stock said she'd run a halibut charter. Murkowski would fish for crab — and so would Craig.

"I think I would like to take a shot at the deadliest catch," he said, drawing a laugh from the crowd.

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com