Bill Thomas laughs when asked why he’s running for his fifth term in the state House.
“Well, because I’m in a leadership position and in a position to help Southeast Alaska, and not only just my district, but all of Southeast,” he says.
The Haines Republican co-chairs the budget-writing House Finance Committee and drafts the Legislature’s annual plan for state pending.
His challenger, Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, is in his first run for office. He says he’s the candidate of the future.
“I think Alaska’s at a crossroads right now and there a lot of issues, in the short, medium and long-term that deserve a long-term perspective,” Kreiss-Tomkins says.
Thomas and Kreiss-Tomkins face no opposition in this month’s party primaries. The real campaign will come later, for the November general election.
Still, they’re traveling the widespread district and letting candidates know they’re on the ballot.
“It’s old-school, but I’m knocking on every door in Southeast Alaska. Every door in Angoon, in Hydaburg, in Kasaan, in Sitka and everywhere else,” Kreiss-Tomkins says.
“I’ve been to Sitka a couple of times, but I’ve really been sidetracked with … many funerals. So hopefully things will settle down and I’ll be able to concentrate,” Thomas says. (Hear a report about Thomas campaigning in Sitka.)
The candidates present clear choices to district voters.
Thomas is a 65-year-old commercial fisherman and former lobbyist. He’s a lifelong Alaskan who’s been chairman and CEO of Klukwan’s Native village corporation. And he’s served on the area’s tribal government council and borough assembly.
“I think that (my) life experience is going to help. And my political knowledge, and experience in the Legislature and seniority. And then, I’ve dealt with the personalities,” Thomas says.
The Vietnam veteran also attended the University of Alaska.
Kreiss-Tomkins is about four decades younger and has studied at Yale. While the lifelong Sitkan has not run for public office before. But he was involved in former Governor Tony Knowles’ 2004 Senate campaign and the 2008 effort to elect President Barack Obama. (Hear a report about Kreiss Tomkins filing for office.)
He knows he’s challenging an experienced lawmaker. But he’s hoping for a hometown advantage, since Sitka holds half the new district’s population.
“Bill isn’t the incumbent in Sitka. And in Sitka this is basically an open election. And very few people know Bill. He hasn’t represented this area before,” Kreiss-Tomkins says.
Thomas and Kreiss-Tomkins share support for funding infrastructure, such as roads, harbors and energy projects. And both understand redistricting cost Southeast two of its eight legislative seats, weakening its presence at the Capitol.
But they differ on many issues, including oil taxes.
“Bill voted to cut taxes by $2 billion a year with little to no guarantees for increased production, which I think is against the state’s interests,” Kreiss-Tomkins says.
Thomas says last year’s approach is dead. But he wants new negotiations for legislation helping increase the state’s declining petroleum production.
“I don’t think you just go out there. It’s obvious it didn’t work two times in a row. You redesign it and try again,” Thomas says.
Governor Sean Parnell recently called for spending restraint in the state’s operating budget.
Thomas oversees the House version of that budget. He says he and his GOP colleagues are already trying to hold down spending.
“I think we need to look at it because of the price of oil, the production of oil. It could be inflated with the price and right now production is way down. I think it’s time to look at what it is we can afford,” Thomas says.
Kreiss-Tomkins says he’s concerned funding for infrastructure could be reduced.
He also wants the Legislature to make sure education funding keeps up with inflation. And he advocates funding schools in advance, so districts are better able to plan.
“If you talk to any teacher, administrator or parent, it’s a source of headaches and a total hit on morale in the schools because teachers, depending on what the enrollment count is, don’t know if they will have a job next year,” Kreiss-Tomkins says.
House District 34, the seat the candidates are running for, is made up of parts of Wrangell Republican Peggy Wilson’s old District 2, and parts of Thomas’ District 5.
Wilson is now in a district with Ketchikan. Some cities from Thomas’ old district were paired with Juneau or Prince William Sound.