Dunleavy makes rounds on peninsula in bid for governor

Former state Senator Mike Dunleavy is out touring the state, rounding up support for his gubernatorial bid.

Dunleavy, who represented the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in the Senate until January, announced his intention to run for governor in July 2017. After briefly suspending his campaign because of health issues, he jumped back into the race in December. This week, he visited the Kenai Peninsula to meet with residents about their concerns. In Homer, he met with a small group at Land’s End Resort, including several commercial fishermen.

He said he chose to run against incumbent Gov. Bill Walker because of ongoing concerns about the state’s fiscal issues, the economy, public safety and education. A longtime critic of Walker’s approach to the state fiscal crisis, Dunleavy spoke against the decision to use part of the Alaska Permanent Fund to fund state government. That’s still a major item he hears from Alaskans, he said.

“It’s not an issue of people want more money — people never got upset at the size of the dividend, ever,” he said. “There’s no history of that. People got upset when politicians stuck their hands in it and the governor vetoed it … they’re willing to take a lower dividend as long as it has not been politicized. Right now they feel that it, the veto and then further actions by the Legislature, that whole process has been politicized.”

Part of Dunleavy’s campaign hinges on public displeasure with Walker.

“If you think the last three years were the best three years in Alaska history, then we’re in trouble,” he said in Homer. “…If you think the last three years were great, then you know who to vote for.”

Running on a theme of “Standing Tall for Alaska,” Dunleavy means that literally. Other than on an NBA court, odds are he’ll be the tallest guy in any room. In a time of fiscal crisis and a state economic downturn, he said people have questioned why he’d want to run now. While in Homer, Dunleavy cited his basketball experience, saying he relished the pressure.

“I was one of the guys who worked the ball at the 3-second buzzer,” he said. “…I’m absolutely excited about the future. There’s only one way to go — that’s up.”

A critic of growing state government, he said he also took issue with Walker’s expansion of the Medicaid program in 2015. Walker emphasized how many more people were covered by the program, something Dunleavy said the state shouldn’t be proud of because it’s a sign that people are in need. The increasing cost of health care to the state government is concerning because it’s open-ended, leaving the state to pick up the tab for the increasing cost of the program.

He has also been critical of Walker’s approach to developing a natural gas pipeline to monetize the North Slope’s stranded gas. While that’s a project most Alaskans support, Dunleavy said he would continue to scrutinize whether it makes economic sense. In 2017, as a senator, he proposed an amendment to the budget to cut some of the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation’s funding to support education, public safety and transportation services.

“We have to decide if this particular project at this particular time in the way it’s been laid out will actually return a dollar to Alaska, above and beyond any investment that we put into it, and how long can we count on that dollar?” Dunleavy said. “Is it something that we may not know what’s going to happen in three to five years and we’re going to have long-term contracts of 15, 20, 25 years that won’t return a dollar? … The idea is to monetize all of our natural resources, including gas.”

“The economy will drive this thing,” he said at the Homer meeting. “I’m open minded. Keep an eye out, but I’m not going to waste any Alaskan dollars.”

Though he said he supports continued resource development in the state — oil and gas exploration, mining operations and renewed timber industry in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska — Dunleavy said it would be wise for Alaska to diversify its economy as well. Technology is a major sector other northern countries like Iceland have invested in. Added-value manufacturing is another sector Alaska could explore, he said.

“Alaska hasn’t had to be aggressive,” he said. “We’ve been able to sit on our laurels with oil. … I think this is an opportunity to continue to harness and develop our natural resources, but at the same time why can’t we use our geographic location in terms of its relationship to Europe and the rest of North America and Asia? Can we pursue other types of industries?”

Public safety is another major point Dunleavy is hitting in his campaign. People in communities statewide don’t feel safe, he said, so part of his platform is to prioritize public safety spending more. He voted against the 2016 omnibus crime bill, Senate Bill 91, because he was concerned about the sweeping nature of it, he said. Though the bill didn’t cause the current rash in crime, there were unforeseen consequences now playing out across the state and need to be addressed, he said.

The ongoing issues of trooper and prosecution staffing and incarceration policies, among other justice issues, all play into public safety and need to be addressed together, he said.

“All of this needs to be looked at in a holistic approach as opposed to piecemealing it,” he said. “Because if you piecemeal it, you’ll never really effect the outcomes that you want to effect.”

Around the state, Dunleavy said people are willing to discuss solutions to the budget crisis as long as they feel there’s been due diligence in work to reduce the budget. In cases like Walker initiating a task force to support a commuter train between Anchorage and the Mat-Su while asking for tax increases and capping the PFD, Alaskans are understandably cynical, Dunleavy said.

As a former member of the Legislature, he said he would bring that experience to a collaborative approach to governance.

“I understand the Legislature, and Gov. Walker didn’t when he came in,” he said. “… I understand the Senate, I understand the House, I understand how bills move, I understand how the committee process works. I haven’t always agreed with my fellow legislators, and the whole system is actually put in place for some disagreement to happen. If not, you wouldn’t have 60 people.”

Dunleavy will compete against at least three other candidates in the primary election in August for the Republican nomination — Gerald Heikes of Palmer, Merica Hlatcu of Anchorage and Michael Sheldon of Petersburg have all filed for the same race. Rep. Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) has also been exploring the possibility of running for governor but has not officially filed yet. Walker, who is running for re-election as an independent, does not have to participate in the primary.

Walker led the race for fundraising with $277,191.63 as of Feb. 18, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Chenault had raised $33,804.43 as of Feb. 15, Sheldon had raised $325 as of Jan. 31 and Heikes had raised $300 as of Feb. 5.

Dunleavy’s campaign has raised $105,171 as of Feb. 15, with a supporting independent group called Dunleavy for Alaska having raised $133,850 by Feb. 14, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission. The group, Dunleavy for Alaska, received donations from four donors, including $10,000 from longtime Kenai Peninsula sportfishing advocate Bob Penney.

Speaking to commercial fishermen in Homer, Dunleavy said, “I get labeled anti-commercial fishing and want to shut it down because I want to get more fish for people,” he said. “I’m all ears in trying to get more fish.”

Dunleavy has supported increased opportunity for personal-use fishermen in the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery as well as restrictions on the commercial drift fishery in Upper Cook Inlet to allow more salmon to pass through the inlet to enter Mat-Su Valley streams. He said as governor he would take a collaborative approach and try to bring fishermen together.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com. Homer News editor and reporter Michael Armstrong contributed to this story.