The race in newly formed District N pits two Republicans against one another in the Aug. 28 primary before one moves on to face an independent challenger from Anchorage in the general election.
The geographically diverse district includes portions of the northern and eastern Kenai Peninsula as well as the area along Turnagain Arm and South Anchorage. The winner will hold a two-year seat.
Incumbent Sen. Cathy Giessel, of Anchorage, has served as a state senator for two years and is running against Joe Arness, longtime Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board member and Nikiski resident.
During their interviews with the Peninsula Clarion, both expressed a desire for government to be run in a “common sense” and fiscally conservative fashion. But, like much like the red pickup trucks the two campaign in, outside appearances are where the similarities end. They differ on their methods for handling the issues, why they’ve decided to run for office and even in how they’ve run their campaigns for election.
Arness, a Seward native, is a 61-year resident of Alaska. He has lived in Nikiski since 1976 in what he calls his own corner of paradise on an unnamed lake down a narrow, winding gravel road.
He’s served on the school board for 22 years, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and ran for state Senate in 1992 and 2002.
Arness said he considered his time on the school board as his hobby.
“I really enjoy being involved in local things that are going on and I take a lot of pride in our school district,” he said. “It’s fun to stay a part of it, I like it so I stay with it. As long as the voters keep returning me, I’ll keep doing it.”
Arness said he decided to run for Senate because of dislike for how the Legislature has become polarized.
“You see it on a national level with the total polarization of the R’s and D’s so everything is locked up,” he said. “It concerns me that nothing is getting done. We’re not really heading in any direction. It’s kind of like, ‘Who has got 51 percent of the votes at any given minute and they’ll beat over the head that of the 49 percent. I just think that’s a terrible way to establish public policy.”
There were two things, Arness said, that prompted him to jump into politics.
The first, he said, was the process that led to the Affordable Care Act’s passage on the federal level and the second was at the state level when 10 democrats and two republicans joined together and called themselves the working coalition.
“They sort of grid-locked, they couldn’t get anything done,” Arness said. “Given the nature of what happened this last year and the nature of the way the state senate works, that coalition — that caucus, that is the majority group. When they have their little meetings that’s when everything happens and if you want to be part of that conversation you better be part of that group and I would have been.”
When the new district was established, Arness said he saw the chance to get involved in state government.
However, campaigning has been difficult and Arness said he wasn’t prepared for how geographically diverse the district is and what it would take to get name recognition in every community.
“I think the rule of thumb is you have to put your name in front of people five times and then they’ll remember your name,” he said. “I guess that kind of offends me because I believe that people are more thoughtful than that and the presumption that ‘OK, I’m just going to keep grinding my name so that you’ll recognize it when you walk into the voting booth presupposes that people aren’t very smart and I just don’t like that.”
Thus far, Arness said, he hasn’t done much campaigning and with the exception of a recent mailer. If he wins the primary that all will change.
According to campaign disclosure forms, as of Aug. 21, Arness raised $1,468.18.
“Anything I spend is going to be my own money. I’m sort of overmatched,” he said. “If I have to take three months out of my life to get elected and spend $20,000 to $30,000 of my own money to get elected, I don’t want the job that bad. I don’t want anything out of the job, I feel like I can do a good job and I’m just, I guess, foolish enough to believe that doing that good of a job for my community is good enough for me.”
Arness said if elected, he wanted to tackle what he considered the single largest issue facing Alaska: how to handle oil tax, or ACES.
“I think we’re slowly but surely twisting the head off the golden goose and I think that we need to change that direction or else we are going to see some really bad times ahead,” he said.
A change to the tax system that simplifies they way it is applied would be ideal, Arness said.
“We just need to determine the oil that they pull out of ground is ours, because it is. We get 12.5 percent of it because its ours. Whether that’s the right number, maybe that should be 30 percent that’s ours, but we need to make a determination. We need to set that tax rate and then we need to stick with that.”
Arness said he considered the amount the government currently takes from a barrel of oil to be obscene.
“We’re dis-incentivizing companies from producing that oil via the tax rate,” he said.
Cathy Giessel is a registered nurse practitioner and Fairbanks native who was first elected in 2010.
She served on the Alaska Board of Nursing and the Alaska Healthcare Strategy Planning Council before being elected.
When she isn’t volunteering at homeless shelter in Anchorage, Giessel said she likes to spend time with her grandchildren in the same way she raised her three children.
“I love taking my grandchildren into the woods and they just explore things,” she said. “This is going to sound gross, but it’s so interesting to see them discover moose pellets, moose droppings. ‘What are those Grandma?’ I’ll pick them up and they’re horrified and then I show them that they’re just wood and suddenly their fascinated with them. This happened this last spring and the middle child suddenly filled her pockets. I forgot to take them out. I don’t know what their mother thought when I took them home.”
Giessel said she used to take her own children on nature walks when she home-schooled them, an experience she said led to her eventual co-sponsoring of a bill that allows parents to have more control of how the state money is spent on educating their children.
“I remember taking my three kids for walks down our street and we’d have a God-made and man-made walk,” she said. “They would have to identify things that made and things they saw that God made. So, kind of what man made out of the resources they saw in the environment. It’s a really important issue to me that our kids understand the beauty of their environment.”
Giessel said she had been planning to run for state senate for several years before her opportunity came.
“I noticed that the incumbent senator was likely thinking about retirement so it was an open seat,” she said. “He was very fiscally responsible. I didn’t want to lose that conservative fiscal voice representing our district. I had been thinking about it an kind of preparing, studying the issues.”
When her senate district was reconfigured Giessel said people assumed she wouldn’t be able to identify with rural issues after representing Anchorage.
But, she said, the parts of Eagle River and Anchorage that she previously represented were distant from the cities and a lot of the issues were similar.
“I’ve got folks involved in the energy industry, in mining, fish guides,” she said. “People are on on-site water and wastewater on their lots. So it’s really very similar. I’m originally from Fairbanks, small town Alaska. So I think there are Alaska issues that are common to us all.”
As she travels through the new district, Giessel said she’s heard a lot about issues facing Peninsula residents.
“Transportation issues are a big deal, the Seward Highway, I have now pretty much the whole length of it. There are safety issues on the road, not only is the road constructed safely but how can we help drivers be safer. So that’s a continuous issue. I previously had Whittier in my district, now I have Seward, so harbor issues are still a big issue. Here Nikiski and Kenai have harbor and fishing issues. So those are the predominant ones and then jobs and the cost of energy.”
Giessel said she has focused on sending out mailers and meet-and-greets.
“This is a more difficult area to go door to door in, in that the houses are significantly further apart and folks here are kind of private. They don’t really appreciate folks showing up unannounced,” she said.
According to campaign disclosure forms, as of Aug. 22, Giessel had raised $61,631.45.
Still, Giessel said, the hardest part of running is asking for money.
“I’m a nurse and we reach out and help people, we don’t ask for help. That’s the hardest part,” she said.
But, she said, the conversations she gets to have with constituents are rewarding.
“I love meeting people and hearing their stories. Not just the facts of their issue but hearing about their families and how whatever issue is rippling out to their families and to their businesses. That’s just a very precious part of this job.”
She’s running again, Giessel said, because things haven’t changed much since 2010.
“We still haven’t moved the dial very far in terms of moving Alaska forward economically,” she said. “The pipeline continues to have less and less throughput. We’re losing jobs. We’re losing our young people ... they go where there are jobs.”
She said the budget needs to be balanced as well and the state needs to learn to be more careful with how it’s spending its money.
“I don’t have an economics degree, but I’ve sure read a lot of economic literature and it really boils down to common sense, what programs are working and which ones aren’t. The ones that aren’t, why are we funding them?”
Giessel said issues such as property rights and personal freedom were important for her as well as loosening excessive restrictions on business.
“The abilities of businesses to function here is very important to me,” she said. “So our corporate income tax ... our regulations and requirements that we put on businesses large or small, those are important topics to me.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.