Voters from the newly formed Senate District N will choose between incumbent Republican State Sen. Cathy Giessel and an unaffiliated challenger Ron Devon on Tuesday.
The two candidates differ on several issues including public education, state employee retirement and even the particulars of oil and gas development on the Kenai Peninsula.
Both, however, are faced with the challenge of informing voters in the newly formed, geographically diverse district about who they are and why voters in rural places like Nikiski should put their trust in candidates who live in Anchorage.
District N was a source of consternation during the primary as many residents in Nikiski said they didn’t know they were voting in the new district and thought they were voting in the race between Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche and former senator Tom Wagner.
The new district covers the northern portions of the Kenai Peninsula including Nikiski, Sterling, Cooper Landing and the eastern portion, from Hope to Seward, as well as Turnagain Arm and South Anchorage.
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Ron Devon, a Fairbanks native, has worked to convince voters that he will be a moderate voice of reason in an increasingly partisan political atmosphere.
“The fact that I’m running unaffiliated is an important piece of the puzzle for people to understand. I’ve been unaffiliated for well over 20 years in this state,” he said. “I am always looking for ways to work with people to get stuff done.”
While knocking on doors in the district, Devon said he has run into a lot of people who say they are also unaffiliated.
“It seems to me that people in this district are so tired of the partisan divide and the gridlock that happens as a result, they’re looking for someone with a reasonable mind to get Alaska moving forward.”
Devon, ran the Museum Store and Nature Source in Anchorage for nearly 20 years before retiring. He said his perspective as a businessman would heavily influence how he represented the district.
“There’s a push to make Alaska a right-to-work state which means that you would allow people from outside of Alaska and contractors outside of Alaska to take away jobs from Alaskans. It would really hurt our local economy,” he said. “I will do what I can to maintain the local economy.”
One of the issues Devon said has become increasingly important during the course of his campaign was Alaska’s PERS, or Public Employees’ Retirement System.
Devon said the state voted to change the retirement program several years ago and it went from having defined benefits to having defined contributions.
“I’ve talked to lots of people in the district who have expressed concern,” he said. “The problem they’re running into is multifaceted. People will hire on, go through expensive training ... they’ll stay in the system for a little while, then they’ll start looking at wanting to have more security. We end up becoming a training ground for employees. I just think it’s the right thing for us to do to return to a defined benefits plan.”
Devon said he understood the issue was far more complex than he was able to characterize but that, if elected, he would advocate for public employees to have more security in their retirement.
“My thought is we need to return to a defined benefits plan and have them paying back into the system to get back on track,” he said.
Another issue he said he differed from Giessel on was education.
“I’m a big supporter of public education, I think that’s an important piece to making sure everyone has access,” he said. “(Giessel) has been very supportive of privatizing education in Alaska and allowing school vouchers and allowing private schools. I do not want to take any money away from public schools to give to private institutions.”
Devon said he thought most Peninsula residents were as sick of bickering in state and federal politics as he was.
“Almost anywhere that I’ve gone in this district, because I’m running unaffiliated ... more often than not I get a ‘Thank you.’ They’re just relieved that I’m not extreme,” Devon said. “I’m thinking 80 percent of the people really just care about the middle of the road stuff.”
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Throughout her campaign Giessel, an advanced nurse practitioner, has emphasized to voters that the issues she deals with in South Anchorage are similar to the rural issues felt throughout the Peninsula.
“One of the things that I heard from folks down here is ‘we have completely different issues than Anchorage,” Giessel said in an interview during her primary campaign. “My issue formerly was rural areas. I had Eagle River, but it wasn’t downtown Eagle River, it was Eagle River road and Highland Road ... drive down those roads its very big lots, very remote with bear issues, moose issues. The Anchorage hillside, again the part I had ... large lots, distant from the city so it really isn’t all that different.”
Giessel said mining, fishing, on site water and wastewater on people’s lots and other issues in her former district were the same issues people on the Peninsula were dealing with now.
When it comes to Kenai Peninsula and statewide issues, Giessel said she and Devon differ in a lot of areas including Alaska’s PERS.
“Over the next 70 years the state will be paying out $140 billion to fulfill the promise we’ve made to retirees,” she said. “So a mom holding a baby right now in her arms, that baby’s lifetime will be spent paying that down. That’s fine, we made that promise but ... almost $12 billion of it is unfunded. We don’t know where that money is going to come from.”
Giessel said she doesn’t want to return to the defined benefit retirement plan that got the state in a financial bind.
“We can’t afford it,” she said. “I know it’s hard for state employees to hear but it’s also hard for citizens to hear about the debt that has been incurred.”
Another issue important to the lifelong Alaskan is career and technical education for K-12 students.
During a mock convention at Nikiski Middle/High School on Tuesday, Giessel told the crowd of students that while a college degree might be alluring, they shouldn’t discount the idea of being educated as welders or chefs even if only to help pay off their college debt.
While her primary campaign battle with Joe Arness was relatively sedate, Giessel has faced several media releases and commercials for Devon that have attacked her political views.
She doesn’t agree with Devon’s characterization of her campaign including assertions in one of his campaign commercials that she wants a complete privatization of Alaska’s school system.
In the video, Giessel appears to agree with a statement that Alaska’s school system should be completely privatized during a tea party public forum in Anchorage earlier this year.
Giessel said emails saying she wants to amend the constitution to specifically state that a women’s reproductive choice is not protected, are taken out of context.
“I am pro-life and I do believe in the sanctity of life so that’s a bottom line and I think all of the voters know that, I’ve certainly sent that message out often. I am not trying to tear apart and remove the public school system. I do believe parents should have the option to choose where their child goes to school and I believe the state’s funding resources ... should be allowed to follow that student,” she said.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org