House District 33 candidates recently participated in several forums in Ketchikan, one at KRBD, another sponsored by the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce and a third organized by Ketchikan High School students.
The House District 33 race is an interesting competition, in part because it pits two incumbent Republican representatives against each other, as well as against their Democratic challenger.
Redistricting changed the boundary lines throughout Alaska, and Ketchikan now shares the new House District 33 with Wrangell, as well as parts of northern Prince of Wales Island.
Another unique aspect of this race is that the incumbent Ketchikan representative, Kyle Johansen, has faced criticism from his own party here at home, starting soon after he was re-elected two years ago.
During a House Majority Caucus organizing meeting, Johansen offered to step down from his powerful House Majority leader position if caucus members would give his close friend, Rep. Charisse Millet, a seat on the House Finance Committee.
After his offer was rejected, Johansen and Millet left the caucus, giving up all leadership positions.
Since then, Johansen has not been able to rejoin the caucus. He has downplayed the effects of working without the support of a caucus, and said he will be able to join the caucus if re-elected.
Johansen said his experience in the Legislature, including work as a legislative aid and lobbyist before becoming a representative, will help District 33.
“It’s an extremely important time for our region because we’ve lost representation, and it’s crucial that we have people who understand the system, understand the players, all the moving parts,” he said.
Johansen opted against running in August’s primary election. He’s instead running as an “independent Republican” on the general election ballot.
The incumbent Wrangell representative, Peggy Wilson, ran against two Ketchikan candidates in the Republican primary and — partly due to overwhelming support from her home town — won her party’s nomination for this district. Wilson, who has served 12 years in the House, has the financial backing of her party, as well.
While Wilson has not directly criticized Johansen, she has repeatedly stated that her position in the Majority Caucus and as leader of the House Transportation Committee would benefit the district.
“The friendships that we have already molded together through our relationships with other legislators is going to be extremely important now,” she said. “The railbelt has grown and the rural and coastal areas of our state have shrunk. And that’s going to mean that we’re going to fight harder to get the things that we want for our areas.”
Challenging both of the incumbents is Democrat Matt Olsen of Ketchikan. He is an elected Ketchikan City Council member and formerly served on the Ketchikan School Board. Olsen also is an elementary school teacher, a job he said he’d keep if he wins, teaching for just half the school year.
When asking for the support of voters, Olsen cites his connection to the community.
“I, like most ppl around here who grew up in Ketchikan my age, went away to college, and I came back,” he said. “And in coming back I’ve done a myriad of jobs. I’ve worked in maintenance, and worked in the seafood industry both working my way on the slime line and commercial fishing and retail, before settling back into education, which is something I really enjoy.”
A big issue that the next Legislature likely will take up is Alaska’s oil tax structure. Both Johansen and Wilson voted in favor of House Bill 110, which was Gov. Sean Parnell’s oil tax plan.
The plan failed in the Senate, however, and never was implemented.
Olsen said that the current ACES oil-tax structure, which stands for Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, is working, and oil exploration is taking place. He said he doesn’t support the plan that was submitted by the governor, citing a potential $2 billion revenue loss for Alaska.
Olsen said that such a loss would mean cuts to capital projects. Southeast has some of the oldest infrastructure, and he said the region needs state help to make vital improvements. Olsen adds that oil companies make plenty of profits.
“It’s a great thing about industry. Their main goal is to make as much money as possible for their shareholders, and I completely applaud them for it,” he said. “But as a legislator, as a representative, as a member of the Alaska community, it’s our job to get as much money of our resources for us. I believe that all of the ACES is working and there should not be any changes to the tax structure in that area.”
Wilson said she no longer supports House Bill 110. She said more information came to light later on that showed it would not work well for the state. However, Wilson said some changes are needed because oil production has decreased and the high price of oil is the only factor that’s keeping the state’s revenue flowing.
“We are going to have to work to find some way so that we can make some changes. Whether it’s just in the progressivity or whether it’s in other areas, we have to be very careful of what we do, because we don’t want to give away all the money that we have of course,” she said. “But it’s something that we’re going to have to deal with in the next session.”
Johansen also no longer supports the governor’s oil tax plan, which he said wasn’t presented well to the public or the Legislature. However, Johansen said that the state’s taxes are too high when the price of oil is high.
“The governor’s bill was not the answer, but there is a place on the upper end where the taxes could be lowered,” he said. We also have Cook Inlet is starting to come into play. Their taxes are completely separate from the North Slope.”
Like many politicians nationwide, the House District 33 candidates faced questions about abortion. Olsen said he believes in a woman’s right to choose. Both Wilson and Johansen say they are pro-life.
“My friend up in Fairbanks, John Coghill, one of his favorite sayings is that choice happens before you get together. Not after,” Johansen said.
He later said that rape and the health of the mother might make a difference. Wilson did not make that distinction. At the Chamber of Commerce forum, she made a statement similar to Johansen’s.
“I am right to life, and I believe that a woman should have the right to make that decision, but I, too, believe she should make it before she is pregnant and not afterwards,” she said.
While campaigning in Ketchikan, the candidates also talked about access to Gravina Island. Olsen said he’s in favor of improved ferry access, and Johansen said he wants a bridge. Wilson said she could go either way, but a bridge would be a better option.
Education funding, economic development and more were addressed at various forums that the candidates attended in Ketchikan. They’ll continue campaigning up until the general election.