Republican challenger Sheila Finkenbinder (l.) listens as incumbent Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins answers a question offered by students in Sitka High's American Government Class. The forum was broadcast live over KCAW and taped for broadcast over local television. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Republican challenger Sheila Finkenbinder (l.) listens as incumbent Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins answers a question offered by students in Sitka High’s American Government Class. The forum at the Performing Arts Center aired live over KCAW and was taped for broadcast over local television. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The contenders to represent Sitka and its neighboring communities in the Alaska legislature met in a forum this week (10-17-16) at Sitka High School. And while the student moderators asked the usual questions about the state’s budget crisis, they also touched on the unexpected — like transgender bathroom use — and the very personal — like physician-assisted suicide.

Downloadable audio.

You can listen to the entire legislative forum, broken down by question, here. The candidates will meet again in an election forum sponsored by the Sitka Chamber of Commerce at noon on Wednesday, October 26, in the Westmark hotel. The general election is Tuesday, November 8.

The forum was civil and courteous, and the candidates for state house, the incumbent Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and Republican Sheila Finkenbinder, stood solidly on their respective party platforms.

On climate change, for example, Finkenbinder was reluctant to endorse any solution that might harm the state’s economic base.

“Not too many jets, airplanes, trains, or trucks run on solar or wind energy, but we need to do what we can to develop these alternative sources, especially in our smaller communities, so that we can reduce the impact of global warming on the state of Alaska.”

Kreiss-Tomkins, on the other hand, addressed climate change as more of a clear and present danger.

“Climate change is real, first of all. I don’t say ‘I believe climate change is real’ because I don’t think there’s belief involved in that statement. It’s an empirical fact, if you talk with anyone who’s having their village wash away into the Chukchi Sea, as is happening in Shishmaref or Kaktovik, that’s not an academic scenario.”

Kreiss-Tomkins has represented the district for four years, after unseating long-time Haines representative Bill Thomas. But even though he’s concerned about climate change, Kreiss-Tomkins is not anti-development. He’s okay with opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — known as ANWR — to oil exploration.

“It’s possible to have sustainable resource extraction in the state, and I think that includes the coastal plain of ANWR.”

Finkenbinder has pro-business credentials, and has been a past president of the Sitka Republican Women. She knows her way around the legislature having worked as an aide to former representative Peggy Wilson in 2011. Some of her views place her outside the party line. She’s a pro-choice Republican.

“When a life is created that decision to continue that life or end that life belongs to the woman and the man responsible for the beginning of that life. Whether they choose to have an abortion or continue that pregnancy is a decision they have to deal with themselves.”

Finkenbinder said she objected to government-funded abortions.

With the state facing an unprecedented budget crisis it’s not likely that issues like abortion will be on the table soon for the legislature. Senate candidate Bert Stedman summed up the state’s problem in one word.

“Cash. The state is burning through through its cash resources on an unprecedented schedule.”

Stedman, a 13-year incumbent, is facing only a write-in challenge in the November election, from Petersburg handyman Michael Sheldon, who opposed the senate’s efforts to allocate permanent fund earnings to close the state’s budget gap.

While Stedman doused hopes that a large, newly-discovered oil field in Smith Bay would turn the state’s finances around such that Sitka could win a multi-million dollar road across Baranof Island, he was optimistic future.

“So we’re not in the end of Alaska’ hydrocarbon age. We’re in the beginning of it.”

But there was more on the minds of the 40 students and members of the public in the audience than money. They asked the candidates their thoughts on the high-profile issue of gender identity and public bathrooms.

Kreiss-Tomkins was open-minded, but thought the issue was a distraction from the state’s real challenges.

“People are who they are. We should embrace that. We shouldn’t legislate that.”

Finkenbinder disagreed.

“I believe that there are a lot of people in this world who are uncomfortable having people of another sex in their bathroom, or especially in their locker room.”

In all, students and audience members asked almost two dozen questions of the candidates — on marijuana, the ferry system, standardized testing, and prayer in schools. Not every question dealt with a policy issue likely to reach the floor any time soon, and some just took the candidate’s temperature on a difficult problem.

For example: Did they support physician-assisted suicide?

The veteran politicians, Stedman and Kreiss-Tomkins, were cautious.

Stedman – I think the angel is in the details here. I’d have to see what the legislation looked like.
Kreiss-Tomkins – I wouldn’t want to go there, in terms of legislation that we’re considering.

But newcomer Finkenbinder dove right in.

“The slippery slope that you enter when you make something like that legal could lead to consequences that we might not be happy with. So no.”

And now the problem for voters will be who to send to Juneau in November.