Sitkans will choose between two candidates for mayor when they go to the polls in the municipal election next week: incumbent Mim McConnell or political newcomer Orion Hughes-Knowles. The 26-year-old challenger threw his hat in the ring when he learned that no one else had stepped forward to compete for the mayor’s chair. He says he’ll offer a new perspective if elected.

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Orion Hughes-Knowles spent a semester in student government at Whitman College, where he learned the value -- and the tedium -- of deliberative meetings. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Orion Hughes-Knowles spent a semester in student government at Whitman College, where he learned the value — and the tedium — of deliberative meetings. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Hughes-Knowles became interested in running for mayor when he saw an ad in the Daily Sitka Sentinel soliciting candidates for municipal office.

Maybe “interested” is not a strong enough word.

“And I was shocked that there was that level of political apathy in this town — the city would actually have to take out ads in the paper to get people to run for office.”

Hughes-Knowles says people like state representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and assembly member Matt Hunter have helped revive his generation’s attention to local politics. But more are needed.

“As corny as it sounds, I do believe in democracy, and we need to support democracy and be involved.”

Hughes-Knowles is a policy-oriented candidate. His issues, in addition to boosting the participation of young people in politics, are: affordability, sustainability, infrastructure (especially for the fishing industry), supporting small businesses (whom he sees as job creators), and supporting year-round residents.

Like some other assembly candidates, Hughes-Knowles doesn’t have a specific plan — creating one is part of the challenge.

“I’m a political outsider, and there’s a lot of minutiae that need to be considered. I don’t have a great depth of knowledge. Honestly, that’s something I need to consider. It’s not easily tackled, and there’s a lot of different roadblocks. That’s one thing I’m really interested in: Educating myself and solving problems rather than just rehashing the soundbites.”

Hughes-Knowles opposes the proposed motor vehicle tax, saying the fee is more than many of the cars driven by young people in Sitka are worth. He would like to see more apartment complexes, where people can get a start.

A plan developed several years ago to build an income-qualified complex on the old city shops property was opposed by some neighbors. Hughes-Knowles says people are going to have to adapt.

“Not in my backyard? Well, too bad. Something has to change about that mentality.”

The main role of Sitka’s mayor is to control meetings, and deciding what issues move forward. Hughes-Knowles feels there are rational solutions to affordability in Sitka. Whether decisions are made by four votes or full consensus depends on the issue.

“It really comes down to talking to people. And listening to people. And finding out what’s going to be the most effective solution. And not one that’s going to affect some segments of the population disproportionately.

Sitka’s assembly in 2005 broke a long tradition of funding local schools to the full amount possible under state law. Hughes-Knowles says he would support a return to “funding to the cap” is schools, as it’s called, if it were at all practical.

“You don’t see buying packs of pencils and reams of paper, but you do see a ball field or an auditorium. And you automatically put a price tag on that and say, Oh schools have more than enough money, they’ve got these facilities. But it takes more than facilities. It takes constant maintenance and attention.”

And Hughes-Knowles wouldn’t be against increasing local support for schools, when it would support overall growth.

“I’m all for expanding educational opportunities in this town, especially for job training, because it can be tough to break into the workforce here.”

Hughes-Knowles understands that his opponent in the race, incumbent Mim McConnell will not be easy to unseat. He says it’s important for voters to have a realistic alternative.

“Mim McConnell definitely does have a long and record of service, and that can be intimidating. But I don’t think that should make people give up on the idea of creating some opposition, and maybe a different voice and a different perspective.”

Hughes-Knowles has lived in Sitka for 15 years. He’s a product of the Sitka School system, and a graduate of Whitman College where he studied Sociology. He currently works as a cook at the Larkspur Cafe. Asked if we should upgrade his job title to “chef” for political purposes, Hughes-Knowles laughed and said, “ask me in 20 years!”