School prayer and gay marriage are not expected to be priorities in the next legislative session, but those were just a few of the questions Sitka High School students had on their minds Thursday (10-11-12) for candidates hoping to serve the newly-formed House District 34.
House candidates Bill Thomas and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, and senate candidate Albert Kookesh fielded questions from a student panel for 90-minutes, while just over one-hundred students and members of the public looked on from the audience of the Sitka Performing Arts Center.
The event was broadcast live over KCAW in Sitka, and KHNS in Haines, the two largest communities in the new house district.
In contrast to a forum at Sitka’s Chamber of Commerce earlier in the week, the Sitka High Student Council members did not give the candidates the questions in advance. As a result, it didn’t take long for the discussion to stray off the familiar terrain of the campaign to date.
Following a routine opening round on legislative education priorities, Hannah Wolfe-Macpike asked a question that would set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Wolfe-Macpike – What is your stance on prayer in school, should it be allowed and if so, in what form? Mr. Kreiss Tomkins, you’ll begin.
Kreiss-Tomkins – I strongly believe in the concept of public education, and public education is not private education. It’s not education from church, and it’s not a private school education. I think the difference is that in a public school it’s this great melting pot, and there are very few things that bring everybody together in a community, no matter your background, regardless of religion, and one of those institutions is public school. It’s what brings communities together. It’s the reason that schools in Southeast are the cornerstone of our communities. And I think allowing. And I think allowing religion in school violates that principal, and will inherently make a certain segment of the student body feel uncomfortable, and less secure – less at home – in a school that should be their home growing up.
Kreiss-Tomkins’ opponent, Rep. Bill Thomas, had a different perspective.
Thomas – I grew up with a very religious grandmother. Prayer was something that happened all the time. I grew up in the ANB/ANS, it happened every time we had a meeting. In the legislature we pray every day. I spent ten months and seventeen days in Vietnam and probably prayed forty times a day and it didn’t hurt me. I watched legislators who don’t wish to pray get up and leave the floor, or don’t come in until after prayer. So that is your option; you may not come in the room.
Sen. Albert Kookesh is a contemporary of Thomas’, and also grew up in a religious home. He said he prayed as a student at Mt. Edgecumbe, and also later in college at Sheldon Jackson.
Kookesh – My personal opinion is that I don’t have any problem with prayer in school. I think there are some other people that may have problems with prayer – the ACLU may have filed suit against that particular issue many times. But for my personal opinion I think prayer in school is fine.
And so it went down a list of social and resource issues: To teen pregnancy, the Pebble Mine, taxes on oil companies, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil development, reducing the rate of domestic violence and suicide, gun control, and last-but-not-least, gay marriage.
This is Student Council member and forum moderator Ryan Apathy.
Apathy – The question is that Alaska’s current law recognizes marriage between one man and one woman: would you support any changes to this statute?
Thomas – My understanding is that it’s in the constitution, so the people would have to make that change. I voted to reaffirm the definition one man/one woman – for some reason we had to vote. But I probably would support it. But I do have friends who are gay people – good friends – it doesn’t mean that they’re going to hang me or anything. But nothing was said, that’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way I live.
Kreiss-Tompkins – I think that amendment was a vestige of another era, and as we grow to become a more tolerant society and have more empathy and understanding of eachother, there’s no reason to cling to these old notions that ultimately make a significant segment of our population feel discriminated against.
And finally, Sen. Kookesh made a personal connection to the issue.
Kookesh – I belong to a group of people in Alaska that is familiar with discrimination. I’m an Alaska Native. I wasn’t around, but I’ve seen the signs that said ‘No dogs or Indians allowed.’ So it’s a real part of my history. I don’t think I want to be associated with a group of people who say we’re going to discriminate against another group of people in my lifetime.
Sen. Kookesh took the opportunity to mention that he was also a member of the pro-choice group in the legislature, and supported the rights of women to have control over their bodies. But he need not have taken the time. The very next question came from Council member Chaya Pike.
“What is your stance on abortion rights?”
Kreiss-Tomkins agreed with Sen. Kookesh. Rep. Thomas said that he considered himself pro-life, but he drew the line at cutting social benefits for pregnant teens.
And this wasn’t even a full hour into the program. The fourth student council member on the panel was Lione Clare. In the last thirty minutes, the candidates were permitted to ask questions of each other, and answer questions from the audience, both in the hall and in the listening audience. The topics ranged from education funding, to the privatization of the Tongass by Sealaska and others.
The candidates who appeared Thursday night’s High School forum in Sitka are three of the four running for seats representing House District 34 and Senate District Q. Sen. Bert Stedman was invited to the event, but declined, and remained in Ketchikan to campaign there.
The general election is Tuesday, November 6.