Ketchikan’s Ted Ferry Civic Center is hosting this year’s Southeast Conference annual fall meeting. (KRBD photo by Leila Kheiry)

Based solely on applause, Gov. Bill Walker appeared to be a favorite among the crowd attending a gubernatorial candidate forum hosted by Southeast Conference Wednesday in Ketchikan.

While all three candidates for Alaska governor received a round of applause following opening and closing statements, the level of clapping for the incumbent outpaced that of his challengers, former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy and former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.

The candidates answered questions submitted by audience members for about 75 minutes. There was a strict time limit for answers, so the moderator — Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables – was able to cover a lot of ground.

The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Lituya provides regular service between Metlakatla Indian Community and Ketchikan. (KRBD file photo by Leila Kheiry)

The first question focused on the Alaska Marine Highway System reform project, which Southeast Conference is leading.

“Is this a process you can support and give due consideration to the recommended outcomes?” he asked. “What is your approach to making the Marine Highway System more viable in the foreseeable future?”

Walker, who is unaffiliated with a political party, had the first opportunity to answer. He said he signed an agreement with Southeast Conference to move forward with that reform process, and he continues to support the effort.

“What I don’t want to do is have this ongoing battle in Juneau about the funding,” he said. “The funding has been decreased about $30 million over the past several years and that hurts. That hurts significantly. People say the ridership is down. You know why the ridership is down? Because we’re not there.”

Budget cuts have restricted the number of ferry runs, as have ferry maintenance issues as the fleet gets older.

Begich, a Democrat, said he’s a fan of the Marine Highway System and rode it every summer when he was growing up in Anchorage.

“Here’s the challenge: For years, the Marine Highway System has been treated like a second-class citizen to the transportation network of our state,” he said. “It’s a part of the transportation system. When we talk highways and bridges, we should include the Marine Highway System in that conversation.”

Begich said the system needs updating, and needs to be a service Southeast residents can rely on. He adds that state officials must accept it will always need some kind of state subsidy, just like roads and bridges throughout Alaska.

Dunleavy, a Republican, supported budget cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System when he served in the state Senate. But, he told the audience Wednesday that he understands the ferry system is important to Southeast.

“I support what the group is doing and I look forward to working with that group and finding efficiencies and making the Marine Highway System a sustainable system for generations to come,” he said. “I think if by putting our collective heads together, we can come up with some ideas that will get us there.”

The forum was packed with up to about 400 people. Other questions submitted covered each candidate’s fiscal plan, seafood and fisheries management, encouraging new business in the state, and protecting the environment.

Ketchikan’s Ted Ferry Civic Center is hosting this year’s Southeast Conference annual fall meeting. (KRBD photo by Leila Kheiry)

Here is a recording of the full 75-minute debate:

The gubernatorial candidate forum was part of Southeast Conference’s annual three-day meeting, which started Wednesday. We’ll have additional reports from the meeting this week and next.