Politics

Kenai borough Mayor Pierce to run for governor, posing new GOP challenge to Dunleavy

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce will run in this year’s gubernatorial election, making him the second high-profile Republican challenger to incumbent GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy and further complicating the dynamics of the first campaign under Alaska’s new election system.

Pierce said he’s running out of impatience, and dissatisfaction with the results achieved by Alaska’s last two governors, incumbent Republican Mike Dunleavy and independent Bill Walker, both of whom are running this year.

“I know these gentlemen have done their very best,” Pierce said in a phone interview late Friday. “But I think if we go with either one of them, we will have another four years of the same results.”

Pierce is in his second term as mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough after voters first elected him in 2017. He retired a year earlier from a manager position at Enstar, the natural gas utility.

His public profile has risen during COVID-19 pandemic, during which he’s opposed mask and vaccine mandates and also questioned the value of the shots, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the best protection against the virus.

Pierce also drew public attention last year when he promoted ivermectin, an unproven coronavirus treatment, and said: “Let the doctors experiment with perhaps some things that haven’t been signed off by the Food and Drug Administration.”

The Alaska Republican Party has been trying to consolidate around Dunleavy, issuing an endorsement this week. But even before Pierce’s entry into the race, the governor already had one GOP opponent running as a conservative alternative in Wasilla Rep. Chris Kurka.

While Dunleavy has challenged federal vaccine mandates and declined to institute statewide policies like travel restrictions or mask requirements to combat the most recent coronavirus spike, one faction of conservatives — Kurka among them — is still angry he’s not taking a harder line against some of those CDC-recommended strategies.

Conservatives have also criticized Dunleavy for backing his chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, and not doing more to ease Alaskans’ access to unproven treatments like ivermectin.

In the interview Friday, Pierce didn’t sharply criticize Zink’s or Dunleavy’s management of the pandemic, and he said vaccines are important, especially for the elderly. But he also said the state should allow more flexibility for providers to prescribe drugs like ivermectin.

His differences with Dunleavy appear to be more based on style than substance or policy. Dunleavy has clashed with legislative leaders from both parties, and was elected based on a pledge to pay Permanent Fund dividends calculated under a historic legal formula — a plan would produce much larger payments to Alaskans, but which collapsed after lawmakers rejected it based on concerns about creating deficits and depleting state savings accounts.

Pierce said he’d have an “open door policy” with lawmakers where they could come to the governor’s office for coffee; he also supports paying dividends tied to the legal formula, but won’t promise them.

“There is no way you can promise anything,” he said. “I can say I will try. I will do my very very best.”

Pierce is claiming at least one former Dunleavy ally as a supporter in Peter Zuyus, Dunleavy’s former top technology officer, who sent the news release announcing Pierce’s campaign.

But it’s hard to know exactly how Pierce’s participation will affect the dynamics of both the primary and general elections.

Alaskans in 2020 approved a major overhaul to the state’s election system that eliminated partisan primaries.

Democratic, Republican, independent and other party candidates will all run in a single primary in August, and the top four vote-getters will then compete in the general election using a new ranked choice voting system.

“I think anybody who says they know with confidence what’s going to happen as a result of this reform is fooling themselves,” said John-Henry Heckendorn, a progressive political consultant who helped launch the gubernatorial campaigns of former independent Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic former Anchorage Rep. Les Gara.

Heckendorn said he thinks Pierce’s entry into the race suggests that some mainstream Republicans see Dunleavy as vulnerable. “But if I had to make a bet today, I’d still bet Gara, Dunleavy and Walker make it through the primary,” he added.

Other leading candidates in the governor’s race met Pierce’s announcement gently, without directly addressing his campaign.

“With just more than four months until the June 1 filing deadline, we aren’t surprised to see candidates enter the race for governor and anticipate there will be more,” Dunleavy campaign spokesman Andy Jensen wrote in an email. “Gov. Dunleavy is proud to run on his record and looks forward to engaging in this race on the issues that are important to Alaska’s voters.

Walker said he’s unsurprised to hear of a new candidate. And Les Gara, a former state representative from Anchorage who’s running for governor as a Democrat, said Pierce’s announcement would not affect his campaign.

Heckendorn said he was surprised to learn of Pierce’s entry, given the number of candidates who have already declared.

Kurka already appears to be running far to the right of Dunleavy, which may not leave Pierce much room in the middle, Heckendorn added.

“The race feels crowded, and it doesn’t feel like there’s an obvious lane,” he said.

Pierce’s term as mayor runs through late 2023. He said he plans to keep his job through the August primary, and “work on an exit plan” if he advances to the general election.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.

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