Six races could make state Senate radically different

Posted: Wednesday, November 01, 2000

JUNEAU -- Six races on Tuesday's ballot could radically alter the Alaska Senate, cutting into the lopsided Republican majority or sparking a battle for control within the often fractious GOP caucus.

Five of the Senate's 20 members are retiring this year, including four Republicans from the 15-member majority. Three of those open seats feature tight races, while three GOP incumbents face strong challenges.

The race for the only Democratic seat up in the current election, the vast Arctic district now represented by Al Adams of Kotzebue, was settled when Donny Olson of Nome won the Democratic primary in August.

Because the other four Senate Democrats aren't up for re-election this year, that means the Republicans can only maintain or lose seats.

Democrats are perhaps the most hungry for two Anchorage seats being vacated by Republicans Sean Parnell and Tim Kelly.

In District I, GOP Rep. John Cowdery is taking on Democrat Sarah Scanlan for Parnell's seat. At 70, Cowdery is one of the Legislature's oldest members going against an energetic newcomer with powerful connections.

Scanlan is Adams' sister and recently retired as an executive of NANA Development Corp. She has been able to reap about $50,000 in campaign contributions, tapping political action committees from Native corporations, public employee unions and other traditionally Democratic sources of money.

''The people of District I deserve good, hard, energetic representation,'' said Scanlan, who criticized Cowdery's votes to cut education funding and reduce the amount of the permanent fund dividend to help balance the budget.

Alarmed by Scanlan's fund-raising prowess, Cowdery, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, recently appealed to more than 100 lobbyists for help in raising money from their spouses and clients. He retracted the appeal after he was informed that fund raising is illegal for lobbyists. The retired contractor said he put $25,000 of his own money into the campaign.

Cowdery said he wants to move up to the Senate to promote natural resource projects, especially a natural gas line running from the North Slope to the Lower 48 through Fairbanks.

''I don't like retirement,'' Cowdery said. ''I've seen other people that retire and vegetate more or less.''

In District K, former GOP Rep. Terry Martin faces former Democratic Rep. Bettye Davis for the seat Kelly held for 20 of the last 22 years. While Martin was in the Legislature more recently than Davis, he's running outside of his old district, and Democrats have high hopes of capturing the seat.

In south Anchorage and the northern part of the Kenai Peninsula, former Democratic Sen. Mike Szymanski is trying to oust Republican incumbent Jerry Ward, a combative conservative with a history of tough campaign tactics.

Szymanski has the backing of many moderate Republicans, and both candidates amassed large war chests in expectation of a bitter campaign. The expected mudslinging contest hasn't emerged, although Szymanski says he's bracing for attacks after Ward recently poured $70,000 of his own money into an already free-spending race.

In District C, which sprawls from Kodiak to the rural islands of Southeast Alaska, Republican Rep. Alan Austerman is trying to move up. He faces Tim June, a fisher and former assembly member from Haines.

The seat has traditionally been held by Democrats, although retiring Sen. Jerry Mackie switched parties two years ago to become majority leader in the GOP caucus. However, Austerman hails from Kodiak, which has half the district's voters. To win, June would have to cut into that base while winning big among the scattered towns and villages of Southeast.

Also in Southeast, incumbent Robin Taylor is trying to fend off his second challenge of the year in Senate A, which includes Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell and Sitka. Taylor, R-Wrangell, easily defeated former Wrangell Mayor Bill Privett in the August primary, despite Privett's free-spending campaign.

Now Taylor faces Greg Middag, a Ketchikan teacher, in the general election. Taylor defeated Middag four years ago.

In Anchorage's District G, Republican incumbent Loren Leman, one of the Legislature's most outspoken social conservatives, faces a tough challenge from Hollis French, a former prosecutor with the district attorney's office. French hopes to win big in the more liberal half of the district that has twice elected Democrat Ethan Berkowitz to the House.

However, the other half of the district takes in Elmendorf Air Force Base, a stronghold for Leman in the past.

The other three Senate races on the ballot feature strong GOP candidates running with the benefit of name recognition or incumbency.

In North Pole's District Q, Republican Rep. Gene Therriault hopes to take over the seat held by retiring Sen. Mike Miller since 1992. He faces Democrat Neal Matson.

Fairbanks Republican Gary Wilken will try to hold onto his District O seat against Democrat Molly O'Malley.

Chugiak Republican Rick Halford is seeking a sixth term in District M, which includes parts of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. He faces Democrat James Della Silva, Republican Moderate Dawn Mendias and Greg Garcia of the Green Party of Alaska.

Halford, a leader among the Senate's conservatives, also hopes to regain the president's chair this year, and his chances of success are tied up in the results of the election.

If Cowdery, Martin and Ward -- all staunch conservatives who would likely side with Halford -- win their races, his position would be strengthened. If one or more lose, the advantage could shift to Fairbanks Republican Pete Kelly, who's reportedly seeking the presidency with the backing of GOP moderates. Leman has also said he's interested in the Senate's top job.

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