Candidates for Alaska's governor had the chance to ask one of their challengers a question at an Anchorage forum Thursday evening. That's not too unusual. But what was: One of the candidates decided to ask his question to an empty chair.
"So I'm going to ask a question of Sen. Dunleavy," said Gov. Bill Walker, the incumbent and independent. "Where are you?"
People in the crowd at the University of Alaska Anchorage cheered.
Republican candidate Dunleavy, a former state senator from Wasilla, didn't attend Thursday evening's forum hosted by UAA's Multicultural Center, the Anchorage unit of the NAACP and the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Anchorage Alumni Chapter. Dunleavy was on the Kenai Peninsula, meeting with voters, according to his campaign. Walker and Mark Begich, the Democratic candidate and a former U.S. senator, took aim at Dunleavy's absences from certain candidate events.
"I am frustrated with his no-show policy," Walker said after the Anchorage forum. He said when candidates don't show up at events to defend themselves and explain their issues, voters don't get an entire look at their options for governor.
Dunleavy fired back in a statement emailed to the Daily News on Friday.
"I competed in a hotly contested primary process while Walker skipped it and Senator Begich has been absent from the discussion for four years," Dunleavy said in the statement. "I am talking with the people of Alaska and listening to their concerns, including those living outside of Anchorage."
A fourth candidate in the race, Libertarian Billy Toien, made light of Dunleavy's absence Thursday by taking the former state senator's name tag and slapping his own bumper sticker over it.
"There you go," he said as he placed his makeshift name tag on the table. Begich and Walker clapped.
Juneau public radio station KTOO reported last week that the gubernatorial candidates had been invited to seven debates or speaking events since the primary election on Aug. 21. Dunleavy had attended three, while Walker and Begich had attended all of them.
This week, Dunleavy attended a debate in Anchorage Wednesday hosted by the Alaska Mortgage Bankers Association and the Anchorage Board of Realtors, but not the Thursday forum where candidates were asked about an array of issues including climate change, gun violence and education.
Candidates who believe they are in the lead sometimes skip debates or forums to avoid giving the chase pack a chance to gain ground. Asked if Dunleavy was taking that approach, a spokesman for the campaign, Daniel McDonald, said in an email that Dunleavy was "connecting directly with as many Alaskans as he can, all across the state" and had debated Begich and Walker in Anchorage on Wednesday and the week before.
When Begich had his turn to pose a question at Thursday's forum, he turned to Walker and brought up the Wednesday debate. He said Dunleavy had some "unusual math with his budget." He said Walker had asked Dunleavy about his budget votes at the debate, but the candidate's answer didn't make sense. Begich asked if Walker understood it.
"I've asked that question at three different debates and maybe that's why he doesn't show up anymore because he's never answered that question," Walker responded.
He went on to call Dunleavy "a quitter."
"He quit when we got the toughest part of legislative sessions — the fourth quarter, he went home," Walker said. "I can't imagine how you're going to be governor if you won't stay there and do the tough stuff. You think being in the senate is tough? Man, you ought to sit in this seat."
Dunleavy said in an emailed statement Friday that over the course of his campaign he had "been to 25 town halls, debates and forums, 36 fairs, festivals, and sporting events, 212 meetings with Alaskans and 100 radio call ins."
He said those tallies included 19 debates, "far more than the folks I am running against."
Dunleavy was the first high-profile candidate to enter the Alaska governor's race. He filed a letter of intent with the Alaska Public Offices Commission in July 2017. He suspended his campaign for about three months starting that September because of medical problems. Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott filed to run for re-election in August 2017. Begich jumped into the race several months later, in the final hour of the filing deadline on June 1.
McDonald said Dunleavy had an event in Seward Thursday evening and was speaking at a Stand for Alaska-Vote No on 1 rally in Kenai Friday afternoon.