In Southeast Alaska state House race, another GOP-independent matchup

JUNEAU -- Ketchikan legislative candidate Dan Ortiz wants people to know that he was doing the independent candidacy thing before it suddenly got popular with independent Bill Walker heading a unity ticket.

"His message about non-partisanship, I think, rings true with lot of people -- it certainly rings true with me," Ortiz said.

The race for House District 36 in southern Southeast was already shaping up as an interesting one, with an open seat following the surprise retirement of Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, at the end of the last legislative session.

In heavily Republican Ketchikan, along with neighboring towns such as Wrangell, the open seat drew three strong contenders, but the nomination was won by 45-year-old business owner and former legislative aide Chere Klein.

In a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 2-1, that would usually be the end of it. And this year, the Democrats didn't even field a candidate.

But Klein still has to get past independent Ortiz in the general election.

"That's like the new rage right now, being an independent," Klein said.

Retired schoolteacher Ortiz, 56, said he's experimented with party membership in the past, registering as a Republican for a long time, then moving to Ray Metcalfe's Republican Moderate Party. When that party disbanded he was a Democrat for several months before registering as an undeclared several years ago, he said.

Now, he said, it wouldn't be right to claim a party.

"When I went to file for election, it would have been disingenuous for me to have filed for a party, even though there are some benefits to doing that," Ortiz said.

Filing for a primary as either a Republican or Democrat would have created both allies and opponents, but joining the crowded Republican primary against other well-known known candidates would have brought its own issues.

Such as the difficulty of winning. "It would have been problematic," he acknowledged.

But given his moderate political view, he said, he sought another route to the House seat.

"One of the things that my candidacy offers is a voice of moderation, middle ground, one that will be able to work with both sides of the aisle and try to come up with answers to some tough questions.," he said.

"The answers lie in the middle; there's no way that one side or the other is going to get everything they want," Ortiz said.

Klein is countering Ortiz with her own strengths, which she said include an unabashedly pro-business agenda.

"I'll be looking out for business, small business," she said. "That's what runs our state and our country, small business. We need to watch all the regulations we are putting on business."

Klein operated a business for 15 years helping businesses, individuals and governments with regulatory issues.

Voters in House District 36 will have some issues on which the candidates contrast to help them make their decisions. The two were on opposite sides of the August ballot measure trying to overturn Senate Bill 21's oil tax cuts and return to the old ACES tax.

Klein sided with the Resource Development Council, of which she is a member, in opposing the measure.

"I am all about business, and (SB 21) made huge strides in encouraging development and new production, and that's the No. 1 key thing we need in this state," she said.

Ortiz sided with popular state Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, in supporting the measure.

"Sen. Stedman made very compelling arguments," Ortiz said. "ACES had its problems, but I think SB 21 was an overreach in the opposite direction, in favor of the oil companies."

The district voted 56-44 percent in favor of the measure, which failed statewide.

On mining, the two offer contrasts as well, with Ortiz critical of the risks facing the local fishing industry from the proposed KSM mine in nearby Canada.

Ortiz points to his endorsement from the United Fishermen of Alaska and said the recent failure of the Mount Polley dam in the Fraser River watershed shows the risks of big mine dams.

"Mount Polley is more evidence we need to do whatever we can to make sure that fishermen in Canada as well as Alaska are protected," he said.

Klein echoed the position of the Parnell administration and defended the Canadian regulatory process, and said that Alaska officials were watching to make sure Alaskans are protected.

"That is another country, and we have to respect it as another country. Their rules and regulations are different from ours," she said.

The two candidates offered more nuanced views on the Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska.

Klein criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for blocking the mine and offered measured support for its development.

"I'd like to see them go through the actual regulatory process. If it's not feasible, if it's not environmentally safe, then it stops," she said.

Ortiz said he didn't like EPA getting involved in Alaska resource decisions that should be made by Alaskans, but he wants the salmon runs there protected as well.

"To date there has been no plan put out as to how the Pebble mine will be developed and still keep that very, very valuable economic engine unharmed," he said.

As state budget deficits grow, both candidates said that cutting budgets will be a key activity during the two-year term for which they are competing, and longer.

Klein said she expects the tax cuts to boost state revenues, but that it would take a while.

"That was recognized with SB 21, that there were going to be a good three to five years of penny-pinching before we are going to see a return from that," she said.

The state's capital budgets, which fund projects large and small, will have to be cut, but she said the operating budget will have to be cut as well.

Despite having experience as a legislative aide, she said she had no ideas yet on where cuts should be made.

"We have to look at every department and see where we can start making some efficiencies," she said, adding that programs created in the last 15 years should be looked at particularly closely, as well as any federally funded programs.

Ortiz said he didn't want to cut education funding.

"Resources are declining in terms of tax income from oil companies, hard decisions are going to have to be made, and I'm certainly going to be one that advocates that education continues to be a significant focus of our resources, investing in our future," he said.

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough has sued the state, contending that the local match requirements for funding schools are unconstitutional.

Neither candidate felt that suit would make much difference.

"While I don't oppose the lawsuit, I'm very doubtful that anything good will come from it in the end," Ortiz said. "In a period of declining revenue we could end up winning the case but still not doing anything to benefit students."

If the borough wins, Klein said, "The state is going to have to figure out how to pay more into the education system. It's going to be pretty much round robin; you are going to have to take it out of some other project.

"One way or another, it's still coming out of the same pocket," she said.

Without party support, Ortiz has proven a strong fundraiser, including contributions of his own. He has raised $29,000 so far, spent $25,000, and had $4,000 on hand, with no debts.

Klein raised less with a contested primary, bringing in $16,000, spending $13,500, and has $2,500 on hand with debts of $2,000.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly placed Craig in District 36.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat@alaskadispatch.com.