House races take shape: Candidates meet at chamber forum

Posted: Thursday, October 14, 2010

The race for local state house seats kicked off Wednesday at a forum held in Kenai.

At a joint Kenai-Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon, District 34 incumbent Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, squared off with challenger Ray Southwell, also from Nikiski, who has the backing of the Alaska Independence Party.

Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, Seat 33 incumbent, was also at the meet, however, his challenger, Dick Waisanen, D-Soldotna, could not attend, according to a family spokesperson.

The candidates hit on a number of topics, ranging from the recent announcement by Chevron that it plans to sell its Cook Inlet assets, to commenting on their greatest political achievements.

On the latter, Olson pointed to his role in the passage of a 2005 bill that overhauled the Public Employees Retirement System and Teachers Retirement System.

"We're probably going be looking at it again in another year to see how much we saved," he said.

Chenault leaned on his push for the reconstruction of the state's foundation formula, used to allocate state funding for school districts.

He noted that for years the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District had been funded similarly to the Anchorage School District, despite their different geographic challenges.

"Kenai is a unique district compared to most across the state," he said. "We're kind of urban and we are rural. We've got schools that you have got to fly to or you have to take a four-wheeler to."

For Southwell, that question was tweaked, asking him what he would do differently.

He pointed out that last year he had worked hard to lobby for the passage of House Bill 50, a bill that prohibits mandatory overtime for nurses in Alaska.

"I was in on the ground floor through the nurses association," he said. "I'll take partial credit for that."

The three candidates' listed achievements are all fitting, given their histories both in and outside of Juneau.

Olson has held this seat since 2004, and in his time he's made job growth, economic development and funding education his main priorities.

Chenault has held his seat since 2000. He has been a stalwart for education, specifically on funding issues. Before becoming a legislator he served on the school board.

In the last two years, Chenault has shifted his focus somewhat, pointing his crosshairs at getting a gas line built from the North Slope to Southcentral.

Since 2008, Chenault has also wielded significant clout, serving as the Speaker of the House.

Southwell, whose mid-western accent belies his Michigan roots, works as an emergency room nurse at Central Peninsula Hospital. He has often been an outspoken critic of the corporate governance structure of the hospital. He has also worked as a cofounder of the Nikiski-based Alaska Citizens Militia.

Southwell said what separated him from Chenault was that he considered himself "a non-politician."

Another notable separation was Southwell's frequent attacks on the federal government.

"They occupy 222 million acres in Alaska that we do not have access to," he said at one point. "I think that's the biggest thing that we need to do is start looking at how do we stand up to the federal government."

For the most part, however, the candidates all shared fairly similar views on local issues. When questioned on their support for Certificate of Need programs in the state, specifically in keeping area health care costs down, they all expressed concern but said they supported it for the near future.

"The intent, I think was excellent," Southwell said. "The difficulty is are we still there today?"

The three were also asked about the appointment process of the state's attorney general. All said they supported an election process, whether through popular vote or the legislature.

Candidates were asked whether they expected their respective districts to go through any reapportionment, or needed to, however, all three again said any changes would likely be minor and nothing significant was called for.

On Chevron's proposed sale, the candidates expressed hopeful optimism.

"My guess is it'll be more jobs, it'll be more spending locally and it'll be more oil for Tesoro," Olson said.

Chenault said that in his conversations with Chevron, the Cook Inlet assets did not fit well for them. He said, as well, that he had been disappointed in their lack on investment made in their Cook Inlet operations.

"If there is any tax left it's very small on a corporation in the Cook Inlet to make those investments, so if it takes a smaller company like Apache or Hill or somebody else that may be a good thing," he said.

Dante Petri can be reached at

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