by Lisa Phu, Alaska Beacon
September 21, 2022
A Republican Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly member is challenging the four-term incumbent to represent Ketchikan, Wrangell, Metlakatla, Coffman Cove and other communities of southern Southeast Alaska in the state House.
In Jeremy Bynum’s first time running for state office, he got 44% percent of the votes in the August primary to Rep. Dan Ortiz’s 52%. Both live in Ketchikan. Four percent of voters chose Wrangell resident Shevaun Meggitt, who has since withdrawn and will not appear on the general election ballot.
Ortiz said he’s feeling good going into the general election but not 100% confident. He noted that he is a nonpartisan independent and most voters in the district usually vote for Republicans.
“And so, the fact that I have a Republican opponent is always a threat in terms of making sure that you do everything you can to put yourself in the best possible position, but then in the end, it’s going to be up to voters,” said Ortiz on Monday.
Bynum said he’s running to “bring a different voice.”
“We have to have a choice and we also have to have a competitive spirit when it comes to these kinds of races, so that we can elevate the conversation for those important issues that are within our region, whether it’s energy, or education, or housing, marine highway. And I didn’t feel that there was a strong conversation happening within our election cycle,” he said Monday.
Incumbent has education background
Ortiz, 64, wasn’t born in Alaska, but has spent 54 years in the state, primarily calling Ketchikan home. Before his time in the Capitol, Ortiz spent about 30 years as a teacher at Ketchikan High School. He mainly taught social studies and history and spent his last eight years as a coach for the drama, debate and forensics team. That’s what led him to becoming a legislator.
“We were debating things like the Pebble Mine or we debated oil taxes, all things that were in front of the Legislature at the time and, you know, by hearing both sides, which you always do in debate, it got me charged up in terms of trying to make a difference in a real, more concrete way in terms of policy at the state level,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz first ran for the Alaska House of Representatives in 2014, the year he retired from teaching. He narrowly beat Republican candidate Chere Klein by 104 votes in the general election. Ortiz has held the seat ever since.
Several bills he’s sponsored or cosponsored that have passed are related to the fishing industry, one of the main economic drivers in his district, he said. Recently, Ortiz sponsored House Bill 41, which allows nonprofits to pursue mariculture enhancement or restoration projects involving shellfish species, like red and blue king crab, sea cucumber, abalone and razor clams. It became law over the summer.
“In Alaska, we have the most coastal area of any other state by far and it’s ripe for mariculture and the products that come from mariculture, and the market’s not going to go away,” Ortiz said. “So I was really excited about that, but I’m proud of the fact that my legislation has always come from my constituents, my constituents’ needs. They bring me the idea and we go with it.”
In an Alaska Beacon questionnaire, Ortiz identified “maintaining vital government services” as a top priority, including the Alaska Marine Highway System. On Monday, he said it’s important for the Alaska Marine Highway to “return to a reliable, predictable schedule that residents can come to depend on, businesses can come to depend on.”
Ferry service has been significantly reduced for several years due to things like funding cuts, an aging fleet and, more recently, finding people to hire, Ortiz said. With the federal infrastructure bill, though, “it’s a new ballgame.”
Ortiz hopes funding from the bill will go directly to operations and to repairing and building ships. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to restore the system back to where it was before the 2018 budget level of service.”
Challenger points to hydropower experience
Originally from Oregon, Bynum, 47, moved to Ketchikan in 2016 after spending summers in the community. He’s acting manager for the electric division of the City of Ketchikan’s public utilities and has been on the Borough Assembly since 2020. Both these experiences will help in state office, he said.
“I’m really involved in my job and I’m also really involved at the assembly level,” Bynum said Monday. “Having a really good fundamental understanding of our local governments will give me an advantage when I’m in Juneau, to understand how decisions that we would make in Juneau directly impact the local communities.”
Bynum credits his community involvement for giving him visibility, which helped him get 44% of the vote in the primary. He goes to or watches almost every City Council meeting, referees high school basketball games, is on the University of Alaska Southeast’s Ketchikan Campus Advisory Council and has been on the board of the Southeast Alaska Power Agency.
“A lot of people in the community recognize that I care and that I’m engaged,” Bynum said.
When asked about the biggest needs for his district or what issues people care about, Bynum listed several things that he called “interconnected.” For instance, the Alaska Marine Highway System and the transportation of goods, housing, and what Bynum called “a people resource problem.”
“Our industries that are in our communities are really struggling because of a lack of personnel and qualified people. And I think that the state needs to really evaluate what their role is in helping solve that problem,” Bynum said.
His ideas include “incentivizing our secondary education to have a shift in focus on vocations and trades and certificate type programs,” Bynum said. “So that our kids, when they’re coming out of high school, have a better vision about what those kinds of jobs offer them, and how they can positively impact our communities.”
Bynum, a licensed professional engineer, spent time in the U.S. Air Force as a power generation specialist. In college at Portland State University, he studied electrical engineering and served in the Air National Guard. He sees his background in engineering and hydroelectricity as something that sets him apart from Ortiz.
“I’ve been working in, specifically, clean renewable energy the majority of my career, over 20 years in hydropower. It is one of our strongest resources in our region, and one of our paths to enter energy independence in Alaska is water energy systems,” he said. “So, we all recognize that energy is our future. It’s going to spur business. It’s going to allow electrification for homes going on to air source heat pumps, buses going to EV, electric ferries, EV cars on our islands, energy produced locally for the local community.”
Both candidates are actively campaigning and raising money. As of Sept. 4, Bynum has raised almost $22,000, the vast majority from personal donations either from him or his spouse. Other donations from individuals have ranged in the $40 to $250 level. He recently received two $1,000 contributions from Steven Becker and Leslie Becker. Republican Leslie Becker unsuccessfully ran against Ortiz in 2020, losing by almost 1,900 votes.
As of last month, Ortiz had raised close to $33,000. He’s received $1,000 donations from several labor unions, including those representing building trade workers, teachers and many public employees, and from dental groups. Numerous donations from individuals are in the $25 to $1,000 range.
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