Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories looking at area candidates for the Alaska Legislature.
One brings experience and the other offers a fresh perspective.
Incumbent Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, and Shauna Thornton, a Democrat from Kenai, are vying for the District 30 House of Representatives seat representing the Kenai-Soldotna area. Both names appear on the ballot for the Aug. 19 primary election.
While Olson currently represents District 29, the Alaska Redistricting Board tightened the district boundary encompassing Soldotna and Kenai, and renumbered it from District 29 to District 30.
Olson, 66, has lived in the central Kenai Peninsula since 1982. He was first elected to the house in 2004 and said he continues to run for the position because he still has work to do.
“I think I’m pretty persistent,” Olson said. “I’ve had bills that will take three or four years to get through and I’m still not done on several issues. But I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Some of the issues Olson said he will continue to work on if re-elected are the Alaska LNG project and workers compensation.
When Olson decided to make his first race for the seat in 2004, it was because he felt his views were lined up with those of the district.
With many district residents working in the oil and gas industry or who have family who work in the industry, he said the majority of the district is pro-development.
“Pretty much the whole time I’ve been in Alaska, one way or another, I’ve been on the peripheral of the oil and gas industry,” he said. “I was a commercial insurance broker for 25 years and a good portion of my business was related to oil and gas at that point in time.”
During his 10 years as a representative, Olson said one of the most frustrating issues he has faced is the oil tax structure changing so often.
With oil and gas revenues supplying about 90 percent of the funds to run the state, Olson said, it’s an important industry, but diversifying the economy is desirable.
Some industries that might allow for economical diversification, like mining, are controversial, so studies and evaluations are important when it comes to making informed decisions. Having all the necessary information is part of the reason it takes a few years for some of Olson’s bills to come to fruition, he said.
“I try not to make snap judgments,” he said. “I make very few of them.”
If re-elected, Olson said his top three priorities would be getting road infrastructure on schedule, completing what has been started to reduce workers compensation rates and equitably distributing education funds.
“Ultimately we’ve got to make sure we’re getting the best bang for our buck,” he said. “We’ve got a finite amount of money. We need to make sure we’re spending appropriately.”
Olson served in the U.S. Air Force from 1967-1971 and is married and has two daughters. He has served as the chair for the Labor and Commerce Committee since 2007 and is also presently a member of the Economic Development, Trade & Tourism Committee.
“I have found during the 10 years, that if … I can give (people) an answer on why I based my decision the way that I did, that it has a positive impact on everybody,” Olson said.
Thornton, 51, of Kenai moved to the area in 1991. This spring Thornton graduated with a University of Alaska liberal arts degree. While taking classes, working and taking care of her teenage daughters as a single mom, she also served as the Speaker of the University of Alaska Coalition of Student Leaders from 2012-2014.
She said her friends encouraged her to run for the District 30 seat.
“I think they have more faith in me than I did sometimes at first or they saw something I didn’t see,” she said.
With her recent college graduation, Thornton said she feels like she understands issues of younger citizens who are trying to expand their education or are looking for jobs.
Two issues Thornton said the state needs focus on are to diversifying the economy to create jobs and making education affordable for Alaskans.
“A well-educated community is a successful community,” she said. “Education is the only way that we’re going to overcome the hurdles that we have and the ones that we’re facing.”
She said many students work full-time jobs as well as take classes, which, she said can be challenging.
“You should be able to get an education at least an associates (degree) because that’s the new high school degree,” she said.
She said along with continued investment in traditional energy sources — oil and gas — Alaska needs to consider renewable energy as well to diversify the energy industry.
But the state also needs to create jobs in other areas too such as manufacturing, tourism or agriculture.
These issues or upcoming issues need fresh approaches and Thornton said she thinks she has an innovative mind and can offer different ideas.
Thornton said while not every idea will work, members of the public also have good thoughts and that elected officials need to consider their suggestions as solutions to problems and not just dismiss them.
“It takes more than one person to come up with a solution,” Thornton said. “It takes conservatives, it takes free-thinkers. … If everybody has input into that, you have a really solid plan.”
If elected, Thornton wants to make government more transparent and operate the budget like a personal budget. If the money isn’t available for something either it doesn’t get done or another, more affordable solution is done, she said.
“The bottom line is doing the people’s work and what’s best for your community,” she said.
Thornton has worked a variety of jobs since moving to the Central Peninsula from media to youth development to administration. She is an active Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula volunteer. In the past she has been involved with the Kenai Fine Arts Center, the Relay for Life of the Central Peninsula and Kenai Peninsula College student government as well as other groups.
“I’m not the baking, cooking mommy,” Thornton said. “I’m the one that’s out there going, ‘Hey, the beach needs to be cleaned up. Let’s go do it.’”
Kaylee Osowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.