Campaigns for the Alaska House and the U.S. Senate brought candidates in each of those races to public forums in the central Kenai Peninsula this week, but in each, the incumbent was unable to attend, leaving voters with no chance to engage them with questions.
Tuesday, the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce hosted what organizers hoped would be a debate between Republican Rep. Mike Chenault, of Nikiski, and James R. Price, a Republican Moderate also of Nikiski.
Chenault is seeking a second term in the Alaska House, this time from the newly formed House District 34.
Price is perhaps best known for his recent initiative drives -- last year against the private prison proposal and this summer in support of a ballot measure to exempt non-prepared foods from the Kenai Peninsula Borough's 2-percent sales tax.
Chenault was unable to attend due to obligations at his business, Qwick Construction Co. Inc., said his aide Leona Oberts who appeared in his place.
Wednesday, it was the Kenai Chamber of Commerce's turn. This time the invitation went to candidates for the U.S. Senate. There are eight in all, including incumbent Sen. Ted Stevens who has been a member of the U.S. Senate since December 1968. Stevens was traveling in Western Alaska with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, among others, according to campaign spokesman Tim McKeever.
The event did draw three contestants, however.
Green Party of Alaska founder James L. Sykes, of Palmer, an audio and video producer, was there to face off against fellow Green, Thomas M. Higgins, of Anchorage, distribution manager for Anchorage Publishing Co., publisher of the Anchorage Press.
Also on hand was Democrat Theresa Nangle Obermeyer, a real estate broker and former member of the Anchorage Board of Education.
House District 34
At Tuesday's Soldotna forum, Price told the audience he was "against the closed primary" created by the Republican-dominated Alaska Legislature and "for a change in Juneau." He said the state is in the midst of a budget crisis and must reduce spending.
Oberts said she has been an aide to Chenault for two years and watched him in action in Juneau.
"I can say he comes to this job with common sense, and that is something that I appreciate and something I think that each one of you can appreciate as well," she said.
Price and Oberts were asked if they could define the differences between the Republican Party and Republican Moderate Party.
"The Republican Moderate Party is a group of individuals, many of whom are ex-Republicans, that supports change within the state of Alaska," Price said. "We are basically a grass-roots group that is trying to make a difference and give people a choice."
He said the party is against closed caucuses.
Oberts began her response with a quick comment. "I need my little cheat sheet that says 'I'm a Republican because,'" she said.
She said Republicans are fiscally conservative people who want a smaller and more accountable government.
Asked if the party favored a closed primary, she said the balloting method to be used in the Aug. 27 primary is actually called "a classic open primary." She went on to say Republicans believe party members should be the ones to select party candidates.
Audience member Ed Martin Sr. asked if the candidates favored investing more of the Alaska Permanent Fund in Alaska rather than in stocks of Outside companies where it has lost money as stocks have fallen.
Oberts said Chenault is not opposed to investing more money in the state of Alaska if there is a viable project. She said Chenault needs more time to look into how to do that.
Price said he, too, could support more investment of the fund here.
"I believe we can afford to take less in return, provided that the return was protected, if that money can circulate within the state," he said.
Asked about whether taxes on the oil and gas industry should be increased, Price said more cuts must to be made before any taxes are raised.
Oberts said Chenault would not be in favor of more taxes on the industry.
Both were asked if there were any conditions under which the Legislature would "erode" the permanent fund "without a vote of the people."
"Absolutely not," Oberts said on behalf of Chenault.
Price said the state's current fiscal crisis and the "continued use of the Constitutional Budget Reserve is pushing the state "to the edge of a cliff," and that the permanent fund is at risk unless there is change.
In Kenai, Green Party candidate Sykes said he hoped that Stevens would eventually show up to one of the many forums he and other U.S. Senate candidates will attend between now and the general election in November.
Sykes said he began working for heath care "before it became a sexy national issue." He founded Oil Watch Alaska that pushed for a fair return on state resources and worked as director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group. He said it was Stevens' support of a trans-Canada gas line that got him into the race. He said that project is not economical.
"It's very risky. The oil industry could make billions of dollars on it with the state getting practically nothing," he said, adding he supports an all-Alaska line that terminated on the Kenai Peninsula.
In 2000, Sykes worked against the merger of Arco and British Petroleum, which he said Stevens supported, eventually seeing BP sell Arco Alaska to Phillips Petroleum, an American company.
"We stopped that takeover. We got Phillips and we preserved competition," he said.
He said Stevens represents Outside interests.
Higgins said the administration of President George W. Bush and congressional leaders lacked "creativity and patience and wisdom in many of their actions."
Pointing to the 2000 presidential election and the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that gave Bush the presidency, Higgins said the high court had unconstitutionally interfered with a state voting process.
"None of the Senate spoke against that ludicrous decision," he said.
In a pamphlet handed out to listeners, Higgins said that for two years he has "boycotted payment of federal income taxes to protest this heinous act."
On Alaska, Higgins said the state must diversify its economy and that it has "stagnated on fossil fuels" over the past 30 years. Alaska needs more jobs to encourage its youth to stay. He also said he would work for sustainable fishing.
Obermeyer took a shotgun approach to problems she sees Alaska facing, starting with the Aug. 27 primary.
"This primary is very confusing," she said, predicting voter anger over the limited access to races because of the structure of the ballots. "You see all of this is about a bunch of lawyers and judges. It's scary now, ladies and gentlemen."
In a series of non-sequiturs she said told the audience that in her campaigns she often mails constituents lengthy documents, that she was a "college administrator with a Ph.D.," and that she has an informative Web site.
"All I can do is tell the truth," she said. "And somebody else has to figure it out."
After turning briefly to a favorite subject -- her husband's problems with the Alaska Bar Association -- she returned to the BP-Arco deal saying she had sent "two inches of documents" to each member of the Federal Trade Commission shortly before Phillips bought Arco Alaska.
Then she lamented that 90 percent of Alaska media is owned by Outside interests.
"When is this going to be a place for us?" she said.
She said she has spent the last 12 years defending herself "against a bunch of corrupt judges and lawyers."
Finally, to end her opening statement, she said that within five days of being sworn in as governor, Sen. Frank Murkowski, "would get to appoint his daughter Lisa (Rep. Lisa Murkowski, R-Anchorage) to the U.S. Senate."
Asked what their first order of business would be, Obermeyer answered she "would not be bought off" and would not put her family members in office.
Sykes said he would try to make comprehensive health care available to all Americans, work for energy security, and get money out of politics.
Higgins said he would support questioning of the constitutionality of the Supreme Court election decision and to open up "all the information that (Vice President Dick) Cheney and Bush are hiding."
Asked about opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Sykes said it would be an economic disaster.
He said the United States couldn't drill itself to energy security. He supports a natural gas line and conservation.
Higgins echoed those sentiments.
Obermeyer said she would not support opening the refuge, either, unless it "was clear what may be involved."
On the economy of Alaska, Sykes said Congress should repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement and General Agree-ment on Tariff and Trade, laws which "allow outsiders even more leverage to come in and compete with us and keep us from developing our own economy."
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