Two candidates running for Alaska governor blasted Republican incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy for missing a longstanding Kodiak debate focused on commercial fishing.
Democratic former state lawmaker Les Gara and independent former Gov. Bill Walker both agreed with each other more often than they disagreed as they shared a Kodiak stage Monday evening, facing a series of questions about the industry. Both said they would hire a dedicated fisheries adviser in the governor’s office if elected; both criticized the current governor’s administration for what they said was inaction on bycatch.
Gara and Walker drew distinctions between themselves and the sitting governor not on stage, criticizing his decision late last year to create a new task force to address issues relating to bycatch — incidental harvest of fish like salmon and halibut by commercial operators that cannot be processed or sold.
“All too often, a task force is used to avoid making a decision,” Walker said. “Every time you turn around, there’s another task force. I want a do-force.”
Both candidates have consistently criticized the governor for declining invitations to debates and forums as the November election draws near. And both have encouraged voters to rank the other candidate second.
“You have to wonder about somebody who won’t share their ideas with you. You have to wonder about somebody who doesn’t come to listen to you,” Gara said Monday. “I’m not ranking Gov. Dunleavy. If he doesn’t have the courtesy to show up to over 90% of the debates, then he’s got ideas he doesn’t want to share with people.”
Dunleavy traveled to Nome on Monday “to check on the recovery/rebuilding process” after the remnants of Typhoon Merbok last month caused widespread damage in communities along more than 1,000 miles of the Western Alaska coast. Asked about the specific goals of the trip to Nome, Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said he had no timeline or itinerary for the trip.
Even before the storm struck, the Kodiak debate was not one of the five Dunleavy had confirmed he would join in an August announcement from his campaign, when Dunleavy said that the selected debates represent “as many interests as possible.” Dunleavy later canceled his participation in one of the five forums he had committed to, in order to respond to the storm fallout in Western Alaska.
“We picked five events out of easily more than a dozen invitations because for a full-time governor it is simply not possible to accept every invitation, and I think the justifications for that is certainly borne out yesterday because the governor was traveling and is still traveling today to Western Alaska to check on the recovery progress,” Dunleavy campaign spokesperson Andrew Jensen said Tuesday. “Certainly no disrespect is intended for the fishing community.”
Kodiak Chamber of Commerce Director Jena Lowmaster said she never heard back from the Dunleavy campaign after inviting the incumbent to the forum.
“Not having him be here is a very unfortunate thing,” she said. “Ideally the candidates who are running — it would make sense for them to attend so they are aware of the issues at hand. Not to attend is detrimental to them.”
Dunleavy also didn’t attend the Kodiak debate in his first gubernatorial run in 2018, the year that organizers canceled the event because just one candidate planned to be there. It was not the only forum he snubbed that year.
A recent poll conducted by Alaska Survey Research shows Dunleavy running ahead of Gara and Walker. A second Republican candidate, Charlie Pierce, has been largely absent from the campaign trail. The former Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor is facing a harassment claim from a borough employee.
“It’s not unusual for political candidates who are in the lead to basically keep as low a profile as possible to avoid making mistakes,” said Ivan Moore, the pollster behind Alaska Survey Research.
Moore said that his recent survey showed “Dunleavy is not vulnerable — yet,” and that the governor is viewed negatively by nearly half of voters surveyed. Additionally, the poll found that newly elected U.S. House member Mary Peltola, a Democrat, is the most popular statewide candidate, and she is giving a boost to other candidates who share her views, including Gara in the governor’s race, Moore said.
With Dunleavy absent from some campaign events, Gara and Walker have spent time drawing distinctions between each other even as they appear to agree on many topics — including on preserving abortion access, a deciding issue for some voters after the Supreme Court earlier this year removed federal protections for the procedure.
“Herein is the primary difficulty that candidates are having with the new ranked choice voting situation, and that is — do I run against the person who I have to beat to get second place?” Moore said. “I think both Les Gara and Bill Walker would benefit more from leaving each other alone and quit beating each other up.”
Matt Shuckerow, a political consultant who works for the governor’s office under a no-bid contract signed in May, said it’s common for incumbents to limit their appearances in debates.
“It is significantly challenging for incumbents, particularly as they continue to operate their day job in dealing with big issues,” Shuckerow said. “That’s why we traditionally see incumbents announce their schedule well in advance. They focus on five or six key forums.”
Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who faces conservative challenger Kelly Tshibaka in the Senate race, also announced earlier this year a list of only six forums she would attend, drawing criticism from Tshibaka. But Murkowski will be at the Kodiak forum on Tuesday — while Tshibaka will not.
Tshibaka’s campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said that she has “a scheduling conflict for the Kodiak event.” She was photographed at a football game in Dallas, Texas, on Sunday, with Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters from Arizona and conservative preacher Sean Feucht.
“In Alaska, a good part of the job is showing up. Showing up to rural communities, showing up to small communities, and letting people know you’re engaged,” Duncan Fields, a Kodiak commercial fisherman, said Tuesday. “From Ketchikan to Nome, fishing and fisheries is what Alaskans do, and yet our Senate candidate has been unwilling or unable to educate herself about Alaska fisheries. And she didn’t show up. And showing up is 90% of the job.”
Still, Shuckerow said the criticism levied against Dunleavy is not extended across the board, including to Peltola, the Democrat newly elected to Congress, who missed a debate in Ketchikan last month because the House was in session. However, Peltola made a virtual appearance at the Southeast Conference following the debate.
“You’ve always seen challengers across the political spectrum, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, challengers always asking for more debates and forums, and I think that’s obviously because a challenger has the burden of trying to convince people to make a shift or change,” Shuckerow said.
Moore’s poll indicated that the distance between Dunleavy and his challengers could be narrowing over time, and some attendees at the Kodiak debate criticized Dunleavy for missing an opportunity to speak about commercial fisheries while Gara and Walker faced a series of questions that went deep on issues that matter to the industry, including fishing quotas and the impacts of climate change.
“At the end of the day, it’s only a few points that’s got to switch around,” Moore said. “Is Dunleavy wiping them out in a landslide? Absolutely not.”