“It’s a false choice to say we have to pick between a large Permanent Fund Dividend and schools,” says former Rep. Les Gara, a Democrat challenging Mike Dunleavy for governor. “We don’t have to turn people against each other.” (KCAW/Woolsey)

Former state legislator Les Gara is the only Democrat in a field of ten candidates vying for the job of Alaska’s governor this fall.

He left his seat representing Anchorage in 2019, after serving in the House for 13 years.

That same year, Michael Dunleavy defeated incumbent Bill Walker to win the governor’s office, and Gara has not been pleased with Dunleavy’s policies or leadership so far.

Gara was on a whistlestop tour of Southeast last week (6-10-22), including Sitka, where he spoke with  KCAW’s Robert Woolsey.

Listen to an extended interview with Democratic candidate for governor Rep. Les Gara.

The challenge for anyone running against the current governor is money. Gov. Dunleavy favors the largest possible dividends from Alaska’s Permanent Fund. The legislature controls the state’s purse however, and has consistently held the governor in check in order to not drain the state’s savings accounts, and dividends have been a bit more modest as a result.  

Still, a big check from the state is the only campaign promise many voters will need to hear this year. Les Gara thinks Gov. Dunleavy is not disclosing the full cost of large dividends.

“Well, first, it’s a false promise. And that’s why I’m running,” Gara said. “This governor has made the state poor. He’s made a resource-rich state poor, by giving away our oil for almost nothing. So we have $1.3 billion less in state funds, because we give away $1.3 billion in oil companies subsidies the oil industry does not need. And without that money, he makes false promises about the PFD, which he knows he can only fund by cutting schools, cutting our construction budget, cutting reimbursement to communities for school construction, cutting Senior Services, cutting Children’s Services, and not building a single state sponsored renewable energy project anywhere in the state in his whole three years. He’s done nothing.”

Gara is the only Democrat that voters will see on the August 16 primary election ballot for governor. Outside of the Republican incumbent, of the other eight candidates Gara’s major rival is likely former Gov. Bill Walker, an independent. Nowadays when politics can seem polarized to the point of hostility, Gara says he found common ground with Walker during the latter’s term in office.

“Bill and I get along fine,” he said. “The thing that we have in common is we both believe that you should put your politics to the side when you can build something better for the greater good. And there there are times where both of us were able to do that.”

Nevertheless, Gara has to draw a hard line between himself and Walker. Among other issues, Gara is staking out marriage equality, a woman’s right to choose, and school funding.

“I’m pro choice, he’s pro life,” Gara said, bluntly. “I believe that it’s not my business who marries whom. I believe in equal rights for all. He believes marriage is between a man and a woman. I believe in strong educational funding every year that doesn’t go down. His first two years as governor, he cut education funding by over $80 million at a time when we should have been cutting oil company cash credit payments that we were giving them instead. That was the disagreement we had back then.”

If elected governor, Gara would likely be sworn in along with a Republican majority in the Alaska Senate. He says he’ll have allies like Republican Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka, who’s been a consistent fiscal conservative, often at odds with Gov. Dunleavy, and some of the more extreme views of the senate majority. (Note: Sen. Bert Stedman is being challenged this year by fellow Republican Michael Sheldon of Petersburg.)

“Bert and I both agree we’re not getting a fair share for our oil,” Gara explained. “The choices this governor has made people make are false: He’s made you choose a permanent fund dividend or schools, or a marine highway, or a university, or job training, or a construction budget that we could use to build renewable energy across the state. He’s left over 50 communities with no police whatsoever. That’s 19th Century policing for a community that has no police where somebody is assaulted or God forbid, even raped, and the aggressor gets to lord over them for a day or two days until a trooper flies and that’s injustice, not justice. And that’s what this governor has done. And it’s a false choice to say we have to pick between those things, and turn people against each other, turn permanent fund supporters against school supporters, against university supporters, against marine highway supporters, against rural Alaska supporters. We don’t have to turn people against each other.”

During his visit to Southeast, Gara traveled between communities by air. With cutbacks to the Alaska Marine Highway, surface transportation has become impractical for quick hops. Gara says he never balked when Sitka legislators Stedman, or Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, pushed for a better deal for the ferry system.

“I always worked with the Southeast legislators, Jonathan, Bert, and others,” Gara said, “and when they said ‘this is what we need to make the very system vibrant,’ I said ‘I support you.’ Right? Because in Southcentral Alaska, the state subsidizes asphalt. It’s not like those roads are free. The state subsidizes them. So people who live on the road system cannot complain that the ferry system also costs money. The mode of transportation down here is water. The mode of transportation between communities on the road system is asphalt. Both deserve support. And so I’ve always been a strong marine highway supporter.”

Gara’s visit to Sitka coincided with the June meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council – five of whose seven members are nominated by the governor of Alaska. Gara understands that this is far from an inconsequential responsibility – and he understands those consequences.

“And you know, you’ve got people like Linda Behnken in this community who are taking the lead and saying dumping 1,000 tons of halibut dead to the bottom of the Bering Sea — that’s not rational fisheries policy,” said Gara. “Killing 550,000 chums just on the Bering Sea, when the western Alaska communities don’t have chums to to eat, to put on their table for subsistence, or to commercial fish. That’s not sane fishing policy, we can change that. As governor, I get to appoint the majority of the members to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. I get to nominate them, they’ll get appointed. And so we get the majority of the seats as Alaskans. As Governor, I can change that — I couldn’t change that as a legislator. This governor has given away our fisheries, to outside interests, to Seattle-based factory trawlers. This fishery belongs to the people of the State of Alaska, so we can have vibrant communities where people who rely on fish for food get fish for food, where people who rely on fish for income get fish for income, and even more people rely on fish just to have a little bit of fun get to have some fun.”

Gara so far is trailing former Gov. Bill Walker in fundraising, by about $170,000 – having raised $539,000 to Walker’s $712,000 – but as of March this year he reported having raised over $200,000 more than incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Gara’s running mate for Lt. Governor is Jessica Cook, a sixth-grade teacher from Palmer.

Note: The 2022 Alaska Primary Election will be held on Tuesday, August 16, to narrow down the field of candidates not only for governor, but also for the US Congress and the Alaska Legislature.  The Primary Election will coincide with a Special Election to determine who will take the late Don Young’s seat in Congress just until January of next year.