In an Alaska Senate election season whose narrative is being defined by the clashing of the new and old guards, it doesn't get much more interesting than the race for a Senate seat representing West Anchorage. On one side, the battle-weathered longtime political player, supported by industry types and years of insider experience. On the other, the upstart who's pounding the pavement and talking about listening and compromise and holds three graduate degrees, including a law degree.
And that's just the race to the Aug. 28 Republican primary election.
Senator Hollis French, the Democratic incumbent of Senate District J encompassing the Sand Lake and West Anchorage neighborhoods, is going door-to-door trying to meet as many of the 20,000 newest members of his constituency as possible, thanks to a redistricting process. He can relax (somewhat) for a while, since he has no Democratic challengers for the primary election.
But on the Republican side, the battle has already been heating up.
Republican candidate Bob Bell, a longtime Alaskan and former Anchorage Assemblyman with ties to the oil industry, is holding fundraisers at the exclusive Petroleum Club and getting checks from oil industry employee political action committees. In an email sent to Republicans about one of the fundraisers, he urges people to donate to his campaign in order to "protect your investment."
And they're apparently into protection mode. He's raised more than $62,000 since announcing his candidacy in mid-May, according to a campaign finance report submitted July 30.
Also on the Republican ticket is Elizabeth "Liz" Vazquez, who filed way back in December of 2011 and is a former Alaska State Assistant Attorney General. Vazquez rides a Segway around her potential constituency's neighborhoods, speaks with a Puerto Rican accent, and like Bell, is focused on reforming Alaska's oil tax structure. Vazquez has raised more than $50,000 since February -- but $44,000 has come from her own pockets. Most of her other donations have come in much smaller increments, below the $500 maximum that individuals can donate to a campaign.
Vazquez doesn't fit the profile of the typical Alaska Senate candidate -- or the typical Alaskan politician in general. She was born in Puerto Rico, learned English as a second language, and was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, much less from college or from law school at Cornell University. She moved to Alaska in 1983, and has a teenage daughter with her husband Mark.
Too, current demographics of the state Senate would seem to not bode well for her election chances: of the 20 current Senate members, only four are women.
"I think it's intimidating for most women to run for state Senate, or to run for office at all," Vazquez says.
"Are you intimidated?" I ask. She looks at at me from the corner of her eye.
"Do I look like I'm intimidated?" She shoots back. "I was a prosecutor for years. After putting people in jail, saying 'no' is not a big issue for me, facing off with people is not a big issue. You learn to be on your tiptoes."
What's at stake
It's a good thing Vazquez isn't intimidated, because there's a lot at stake in Alaska right now.
The biggest issue of this year's legislative session was whether or not to revise Alaska's oil tax structure, to the tune of billions in tax breaks for North Slope oil producers. That project, pushed by Gov. Sean Parnell, came to nothing when he called off the debate over oil taxes even after calling the Legislature back into special session to address the issue.
While the Republican-dominated House of Representatives supported giving the oil companies the tax break, the state Senate was a harder sell. There, the Bipartisan Working Group -- a coalition of 10 Democrats and six Republican legislators -- challenged the governor's proposed tax cuts. Republican Senator Lesil McGuire, who supports tax breaks, went as far as to call one of Parnell's plans "half-baked."
Members of the Bipartisan Working Group now face some of the toughest electoral challenges. Several members face primary battles, while others will have tough competition in the general election. District J is one of those -- Democrat Hollis French is a member of the coalition, and one of the most outspoken opponents of a tax break.
Both Bell and Vazquez advocate changing the oil tax structure. Vazquez said that the biggest problem with the current package is the progressivity rate, where the taxes increase as the price of a barrel of oil increases.
The oil tax debate has become something of a standoff, in which industry promises more production if given lower taxes, while some members of the Senate suggest it should lower taxes only if industry steps up production.
Vazquez said it's not about backing down from oil companies, but looking at the numbers. She's big on numbers. She supports some projects based on the numbers, and doesn't support others. As chairwoman of the board of directors for the Chugach Electric Association, she said she supported the Susitna-Watana hydroelectric dam project, but opposed Cook Inlet Regional Corporation's Fire Island wind power project, because "the numbers just weren't there."
For Vazquez, the oil production and tax debate comes down, again, to numbers.
"The pipeline provides 90 percent of state revenues," she says. "We have lost 40 percent of that production on the pipeline in the last 10 years. At the same time, we have doubled state spending. That's not a sustainable long-range picture."
Whats best for Alaska?
Vazquez emphasizes, several times, that she has never worked for the oil and gas industry, and that she's not part of what she repeatedly refers to as "the good ol' boys" network of Alaska politicians.
That's likely a dig at her opponent, Republican Bob Bell, a longtime Alaskan and CEO of F. Robert Bell and Associates, an engineering, surveying and construction firm which has had longtime contracts with several oil industry companies. Bell himself willingly offers that his company has done surveying on Alaska's North Slope for BP for longer than three decades as well as surveying for the Alyeska Pipeline.
That's not all the company does, though; it has also worked on projects in Anchorage as varied as the Loussac Library, Egan Center, Alaska Native Medical Center and Sand Lake Elementary School.
And Bell, who also served as an Anchorage assemblyman for 6 years in the 1990s, asserts that despite his longtime ties to industry, they wouldn't cloud his judgment when it comes to determining what's best for the people of Alaska.
"When I was on the assembly," Bell says, "a lot of people supported me and a lot of people talked to me about issues. But whenever I was going to make a vote on an issue, the last thing that I would ask myself is 'is this good for the people I'm supposed to be representing?'
"The people I represented always won out, and that's how I voted every time."
Bell said it would be the same way when it comes to negotiating any revision to oil taxes. He said his longtime relationships with the industry would actually be a help, not a hindrance when it came to finding terms amenable to both the big three oil producers -- BP, Exxon Mobil Corp., and ConocoPhillips -- and the state of Alaska that will boost production and still bring income into the state.
"The experience that I have, I think, will be able to help facilitate that," Bell said. "We need to sit down and sort this thing out. Just because we have contracts with them doesn't make us beholden to them."
Bell subscribes to the train of thought that American politics are based on partisanship. When one party takes over, it's the majority and it's the responsibility of the other party to be "the respectful minority." If voters disagree with the direction one party is taking them, they can vote that party out of office and vote the other in.
"American politics are based on partisanship," Bell said, "and they take turns, in essence, being in charge."
It's a bold statement, but Bell emphasizes that it doesn't mean partisanship is necessarily good, just that it provides a balance to the system, and that the Bipartisan Working Group runs counter to that idea.
"I think a coalition like that is extremely weak. So if three senators say I just don't like this deal, it kills it, and that's not the way its supposed to work," Bell said.
A matter of money
With Bell and Vazquez both pushing oil tax reform at the forefront of their platforms, why did Bell enter the race months after Vazquez had already announced her candidacy?
He said it came down to dollars -- Vazquez hadn't raised enough money, and some Republicans were concerned that she wouldn't have the funds to stand up against Sen. French in the general election. Money is a valid concern in the District J race: French had more than $77,000 on hand in campaign filings at the end of July -- and that's even after spending more than $20,000.
Bell's first fundraiser at Anchorage's Petroleum Club brought in almost $37,000, so his ability to bring in funds was quickly established. He's held several fundraisers since, and continued to bring in sizeable individual donations.
Vazquez, thanks to her own donations to her campaign, has been able to stay in the money game, and has recently stepped up her advertising on television and in other media.
In the meantime, all three candidates are putting boots on the ground and visiting the various parts of their districts. They include the areas of Sand Lake, out toward Kincaid Park, the area surrounding Dimond High School, down Jewel Lake into Spenard and Wisconsin, and the old neighborhood of Turnagain. It also includes the area around Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Bell said he's walked the district once with one other person, and was preparing to start over again. Vazquez has been getting around on foot and on her trusty Segway, knocking on doors and meeting constituents. French has also been making the rounds, not content to rest on his laurels since both candidates in the Republican primary would likely be strong contenders in the general election.
Despite the position of senator being one that deals largely in statewide issues, all the candidates agreed on the importance of going door to door, meeting voters face-to-face and learning what's important to their neighborhoods.
"In my opinion, everything's built on that," French said. "It all depends on you having a few minutes with an individual voter, so they get a feel for the human being behind the campaign."
As all three candidates continue to battle for hearts and minds, the voters will be able to voice their opinions on Aug. 28, when the Republican primary will pit Bell and Vazquez against each other. On Nov. 6, the winner of that race will square off against French in the general election.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com