The new legislative boundaries have put two incumbents up against each other in the fall. But both appear on Tuesday’s primary ballot unopposed for their party’s nomination.
Sitka Republican Bert Stedman and Angoon Democrat Albert Kookesh were both born and raised in Alaska. Both are members of the Senate’s bipartisan majority. And they seem to agree on a lot of issues.
“The biggest challenge here is energy costs, again going forward here in Sitka,” said Stedman. He says the other communities in the district share that challenge, but to differing degrees of magnitude.
“For instance,” Stedman said, “if you’re fortunate enough to be on some hydro on Prince of Wales, or Metlakatla, you still have some challenges. You need extra production. But if you happen to be running diesel generators, like Kake, you’re in a world of economic challenges, because your cost of energy is too high.”
Kookesh agrees, and says whoever gets into the legislature needs to get as much money for Southeast hydro as possible.
“We need to get everybody on hydro,” Kookesh said. “Then we run into this little problem. In Kake, you don’t have a hydro stream anywhere nearby. In Hoonah, you don’t have a hydro stream anywhere nearby that could generate the kind of energy you need for a hydro project. We have to do something different in Kake, we have to do something different in Hoonah to get everybody on hydro.”
Kookesh says the state needs to put more money into energy for Southeast Alaska in the long-term, especially as it works to fund a multi-billion dollar hydro project on Southcentral’s Susitna River. Stedman says the state’s 50-50 funding of both the Susitna Watana project and Blue Lake is too small a piece of the pie, and maybe it should chip in more.
The other staple of legislative conversations in this part of the state is transportation, namely the Alaska Marine Highway System’s aging ferry fleet. Stedman says he wants to go after more money for a new class of boats.
“I feel kind of like a lone soldier dealing with that issue – funding the ferries – I wish I had more support throughout the Southeast delegation on funding for the construction of the new ferries,” he said. “I’m talking about the support to actually put the money on the table. Not the support over the airwaves to make people feel good, that makes a nice sound bite.”
The state has authorized spending more than $150 million for construction of one new Alaska Class vessel. But Stedman would like to see $50 million a year until enough is set aside for two or three.
Kookesh has a similar view.
“We want to make sure that if we are thinking far enough ahead, we put money aside to build another ferry, besides the one we have in the works now,” he said. “That’s our lifeblood. Everybody in Southeast Alaska has as (their) concern, the ferry system.”
On Tuesday’s primary ballot, Kookesh and Stedman aren’t technically running against each other. But they will be in November’s general election. Both candidates hesitated to compare their differences, but they did talk about what they feel sets them apart.
Kookesh cites his eight years in the House and his eight years in the Senate.
“I can talk to anybody,” Kookesh said. “I’ve spent my time in the House, so I have a good relationship with people in the House of Representatives. I’ve spent eight years down there, and most of the people I spent it with, like Beth Kerttula, are still there.”
Stedman says his powerful position as co-chair of Senate finance prevents the rail belt from controlling too much of the state budget.
“A lot of the boys in the rail belt would like to have their ability to have a choke-hold on the treasury all the time, in particular years of surplus,” he said. “But by having guys from rural Alaska in those positions, we have a much more thorough process and fairer distribution of the state’s financial wealth.”