Democratic governor candidate Les Gara picks teacher from Palmer as his running mate

Democratic governor candidate Les Gara on Monday named Jessica Cook of Palmer as his lieutenant governor candidate for this fall’s general election. Gara and Cook are the only Democratic candidates in the race so far. The deadline to enter is June 1.

Cook, born in Anchorage, is a parent with 20 years of experience as a schoolteacher, two master’s degrees in education, a history of involvement with teachers’ unions, and no prior experience in public office.

“There won’t be a better advocate for education,” said Gara, who introduced her during a brief ceremony at an Anchorage office building.

Cook and Gara said they had been discussing her potential candidacy for months, but she wasn’t sure if she could balance it with her teaching job.

“Every time I thought about the opportunity to help, not just my students, and not just my kids and my grandkids, but to actually help my fellow Alaskans, that just resonated with me so strongly, just over and over and over. And so I finally said, ‘OK, let me see what I can do to make this work,’ ” she said.

She said she will finish the school year as a teacher, then take a leave of absence to campaign. Asked whether she has told her students about her plans, she said, “no, I have not, because that’s on the clock.”

Cook and Gara attacked incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s economic and budgetary policy, accusing the governor of contributing to a wave of outmigration from Alaska. That wave began before Dunleavy entered office and has continued through his term.

Cook and Gara said they support the restoration of a public pension program for state employees, saying that a pension would give teachers and public safety workers a reason to remain in Alaska, reducing chronic turnover problems.

“I want the best people teaching my grandchildren. I want the best officers protecting our communities,” Cook said.

The two also said they also propose an expansion of the state’s force of rural Troopers and village public safety officers, reductions in tax credits paid to oil companies, and increased spending on maintenance backlogs at public facilities and the University of Alaska.

Gara announced his campaign for governor in late summer, but deferred an announcement on his lieutenant governor candidate. Alaska’s new election system requires a governor and lieutenant governor to run together as a single ticket.

“I wanted the most qualified person, and then I wanted the ticket — if possible — to look like Alaska. So we’re regionally diverse, we’re ethnically diverse,” said Gara of Cook, who is multiracial and identifies as half-Black, half-white.

Gara, the son of immigrants, is from Anchorage and said most people identify him as white.

“I’ll tell you, I would have a little knot in my stomach if it was two white men from Anchorage running for office. That’s fine, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice,” Gara said.

In the state’s Aug. 16 primary election, each voter will be asked to pick one governor-lieutenant governor pairing. The four pairings that receive the most votes will advance to the general election in November, where a final winner will be chosen by ranked-choice voting.

As of Monday, seven people had signed up to run for governor by filling out a letter of intent with the Alaska Public Offices Commission or registering with the Alaska Division of Elections.

Incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Republican candidate Charlie Pierce have not yet announced candidates for lieutenant governor. (Incumbent Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer is not running for re-election.)

Independent governor candidate Bill Walker is running with lieutenant governor candidate Heidi Drygas. Libertarian Billy Toien is running with Shirley Rainbolt. Republican candidate Bruce Walden is running with Tanya Lange, and Republican candidate Christopher Kurka is running with Paul Hueper.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.