Candidates for House Districts 35 and 36. (Courtesy Tlingit & Haida, via Facebook)

The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska hosted a virtual candidate forum on Thursday (Oct. 8) with four Southeast House candidates.

Here’s a breakdown of where the candidates vying to represent Districts 35 and 36 fall on state and local issues.

Listen to the story here.

Candidates for state house in Southeast Alaska districts spanning Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka, Wrangell, Prince of Wales Island and a number of villages all agree: Alaska’s fiscal future is the most pressing problem facing the state. 

“[It’s] not very exciting, or sexy to think about per se,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, House District 35’s Democratic incumbent from Sitka, “but what the budget really represents is the health and welfare of all communities and citizens.” 

His challenger is Hoonah Republican Kenny Karl Skaflestad, who said he believes the state can’t keep trying the same fixes and hoping they’ll work. 

“The biggest problem is perhaps [a] lack of fresh views, a potential, diversified attention towards resource development as a source of additional revenue and economic development in the state to help us,” Skaflestad explained at Thursday’s meeting. “Also, responsible budgeting for state services is paramount.”

In other words, he says he supports more timber, mining and oil drilling to close the gap.

Both Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins and Skaflestad are vying to represent House District 35, which covers the coast to the mainland from Chichagof Island in the north to Mitkof Island in the south. 

While the candidates said they agreed that Alaska’s financial situation is its most pressing issue, they differ on solutions. Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins says he supports an income tax. Hoonah Republican Kenny Skaflestad says he’s against new taxes. 

Ketchikan Republican Leslie Becker agreed. The elected member of Ketchikan’s school board is in the House District 36 race challenging Ketchikan incumbent Rep. Dan Ortiz. She says, as a last resort, she supports a flat tax that would tax Alaskans at the same rate — regardless of income level. Her platform focuses on raising revenue from developing the state’s natural resources — oil, mining, fishing and timber — rather than taxation as the way out of the fiscal crisis. 

“I believe we need to right size our government, we need to put in a spending cap, and we need to open up our economic development for our natural resources,” Becker said.

House District 36 covers Ketchikan where both Rep. Ortiz and Becker live, as well as Wrangell and the southern half of Prince of Wales Island. 

Rep. Ortiz says Becker’s development plan is not realistic in the short term–development takes time that Alaska doesn’t have: “As much as I would agree,” Ortiz responded, “we would all prefer not to pay more taxes. There’s just no question about that. But the reality is, is that you can’t you can’t get there with a balanced budget without looking at added revenues.”

Candidates also addressed public safety in Southeast villages. Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins says the state should partner with tribes as equals to help Village Public Safety Officers succeed. 

“It’s really important in my mind that the state treat the regional partners with on a sort of a peer wise basis in order to help create the best possible public safety in rural Alaska.”

As the former mayor of Hoonah, District 35 candidate Skaflestad said he largely agreed. He signaled support for local and state law enforcement partnering with tribes like Tlingit & Haida.

Turning to education, challengers Skaflestad and Becker emphasized a need to tailor education to local needs, both noting a need to conserve money where possible. Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins also mentioned a need for education flexibility and support during COVID, to make sure schools with dropping enrollment aren’t closed down, possibly denying education to future generations. 

Rep. Ortiz — a former high school teacher — says education is an investment in Alaskans: “I think that is really good economics as well. Investing in our future workforce, investing in our future citizens of Alaska that are going to carry the state forward is basic economics.”

Dwindling funds and investment in Alaskans is also a primary concern for candidates when thinking about the state ferry system. Skaflestad says Southeast lawmakers and their allies will need to keep making the case that the marine highway is not expendable.

“It is not to be a political football placed on a table to be bargained with,” Skaflestad stated. “This is a necessity to the lifestyle and those people that that living in this region.”

His opponent and Rep Ortiz made similar remarks. District 36 candidate Becker says the marine highway’s finances should be closely scrutinized. 

“Because this is an extremely expensive proposition,” Becker explained, “we need to look at it from an efficiency side, which we require is kind of the willingness to peel back the veneer on all levels, and do a forensic audit across the board.”

The Ketchikan Republican positions herself as a budget hawk. But much of Becker’s campaign has been dogged by accusations of racism stemming from posts on a religious blog. She’s deleted the blog but says she stands by her writings, which she says were prayers or sermons.

She insisted that she’s not racist nor does she want the support from anyone who is, adding: “If any of my supporters are attacking someone else because of race, absolutely, I don’t stand for that. I don’t I’m not part of that. And I’m not putting up with that.”

Turning to the state’s $40 million Kake Access Road project which would overhaul existing logging roads for improved access for logging and recreation between Kake and Petersburg. The project has been controversial with Kake’s tribe and others arguing the state should be investing in the ferry system instead. Skaflestad says the state should listen to local residents.

“There’s no need for them to suffer and or something that they just don’t want in your region, if that truly is their consensus, and certainly shouldn’t have it driven down their throat,” Skaflestad said.  

Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins expressed personal frustration but says it’s too far along to stop. 

“Despite what I think might be the best use of the very limited public dollars,” Kreiss-Tompkins said, “the train had left the station, so to speak.” 

With just an hour to hear from all four candidates, Tlingit & Haida president Richard Peterson invited people to send written questions for candidates to answer at a later time. 

Registration for November’s general election is now closed. But registered voters wishing to vote absentee have until October 24 to request ballots. More information can be found at the Alaska Division of Elections website.

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (9097) 874-2345.