Candidates Walker and Gara debate Alaska’s future at municipal league conference, with Gov. Dunleavy absent

Two of the three major candidates running in next year’s gubernatorial race appeared at a friendly debate in front of an audience of local government officials from around the state at the Alaska Municipal League conference in downtown Anchorage on Tuesday.

“AML is like coming home for me,” said former independent Gov. Bill Walker, who had a long career in local politics before winning state office. “The purest form of government is local government.”

Also onstage was former Democratic state Rep. Les Gara, who announced his campaign for the governor’s office in August, running on his record legislating in the Capitol and putting education as one of his top priorities.

“My whole career as a legislator I said school funding should go up with inflation every year,” Gara said. “I’ve fought for statewide pre-K my entire time.”

Notably absent from the gubernatorial debate was Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Ahead of the event, a conference organizer said Dunleavy had a scheduling conflict that prevented him from attending. A deputy press secretary from the governor’s office said she could not comment on campaign-related questions. Messages left with Dunleavy’s reelection campaign were not returned Tuesday afternoon.

The election is next November.

The absence of the state’s chief executive made him a frequent rhetorical punching bag for the candidates onstage, who faulted his leadership style, messaging on the pandemic and fiscal policies.

At one point, Walker referred to him simply as “the guy who didn’t show up today.”

Gara said he wished Dunleavy had attended so that he could ask him about his attempts to reallocate money from the Power Cost Equalization fund.

“Trying to raid the PCE fund is neglect, not leadership,” Gara said.

[Watch the debate below:]

Libertarian candidate Billy Toien was not listed as part of the event on AML’s conference schedule.

More candidates may still enter the race. The filing deadline is not until June 2022.

The municipal league is a voluntary nonpartisan organization representing 165 cities, municipalities and boroughs with the goal of creating “the unified voice of Alaska’s local governments to successfully influence state and federal decision making,” and providing training to local governments, according to its mission.

Scattered across circular tables in a cavernous orange conference room inside the Hotel Captain Cook, city clerks and managers, borough mayors and common council representatives, Railbelt lawmakers and an Anchorage Assembly member dined on sandwiches and coffee during the lunchtime event. Moderator Bryce Ward, mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, noted the event was more like a “get-to-know-the-candidates forum,” with questions provided to them in advance and a “lightning round” composed of wonkish AML-specific policy issues.

The 150 or so attendees in the ballroom hailed from all around the state: Nome to Homer to Kotzebue to Juneau to Aniak and the North Slope. One table appeared filled entirely with Fairbanksans. Attire ran the gamut from heels to snow boots, ties, atikluks and various Copper River vestments.

Walker played to the crowd, highlighting that his administration drew heavily from local government officials from around the state to fill out his ranks.

“You are doers, you get the job done,” he told the audience.

He said that during his tenure, after he’d made billions of dollars in “incredibly difficult, painful cuts,” he went around the state speaking with local governments, and if elected again would likewise lead by meeting with Alaskans from all over.

The vision of a second term that Walker articulated centers on opportunities he believes are being squandered, and more that he sees on the horizon. Specifically, the recently signed infrastructure bill, which he thinks will bring major economic and social benefits to the state.

“This is a very significant opportunity for Alaska. Probably the biggest fiscal opportunity since the trans-Alaska pipeline,” Walker said.

He highlighted his record of bipartisan pragmatism to stress he would meet with whomever he might need to in order to get more federal dollars that are not specifically formula-funded for Alaska but subject to competitive bidding.

“We need an administration that will fight for that money,” Walker said.

Much of Gara’s message involved restoring the state to what he remembers as previous eras of promise and opportunity.

“I want this to be a place that people believe in again,” Gara said.

More resources for education, from pre-K through university, is a central policy platform, along with reforming the state’s tax subsidies with oil companies.

“We should get a fair share for our oil,” Gara said. ”It’s one of the ways out of this fiscal mess.”

Gara, whose wife is a health care worker, took several jabs at Dunleavy, as well as at Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson, for their handling of the pandemic. Both Gara and Walker said they were largely in agreement when it came to COVID-19, believing public health policy works best when it defers to guidance from experts.

After the debate ended, the candidates were met with a round of enthusiastic post-lunch applause from the local public servants on hand.

From the podium, municipal league executive director Nils Andreassen directly addressed the two candidates.

“You can have seven minutes to politick in the room,” he said dryly.

Sure enough, a little while later the glad-handers were guided into a hallways while attendees in the ballroom got on with their business of governance.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, politics, drugs, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the paper he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.