At the heart of their campaign, Democratic Party candidates for governor and lieutenant governor Les Gara and Jessica Cook look to increasing funding for education from pre-kindergarten through university to keep Alaska growing — and Alaskans from moving out of state.
Earlier this month, Gara and Cook stopped by the Homer News on June 2 for an interview in between visits with local businesses and city officials. That Thursday night they held a meet-and-greet at the home of Rich Chiappone, a Homer writer and a fishing buddy of Gara, and retired high school counselor Lin Hampson.
Gara’s secret weapon in his campaign might be Cook, a lifelong Alaskan and 22-year elementary school teacher from Palmer who talks passionately about her family’s background in education. She brings real-world experience as a teacher to the race.
When asked at the meet-and-greet what she thought about the Alaska Reads Act, which would include universal pre-kindergarten, she replied, “Yeah, I think pre-K is good. But I think there’s also other social issues we need to look at, because it’s not just what you learned in school.”
Cook said she had families where both parents worked and they still lived at the poverty level.
“I had a student when I was teaching third grade, she would come to school in the middle of the winter with Keds (sneakers) and no socks and high-water pants,” Cook said. “She would come a half hour before lunchtime, because she knew she was going to eat that day. Do you think that child was ready to read?”
Candidates Mike Dunleavy, the incumbent and a Republican, Bill Walker, an independent, and Charlie Pierce, also a Republican, all have female running mates. If elected, Cook would break another glass ceiling: the first woman lieutenant governor who also is biracial.
“I think it will set the tone for racial unity in the state for children of color to see the first female lieutenant governor of color,” Gara said. “… Jessica and I both believe that our cabinet and our government should look like the people that it represents.”
The Gara-Cook stump speech goes like this:
• Alaska gives away $1.3 billion in petroleum industry tax credits that could fund education, but also a larger Alaska Permanent Fund dividend and capital projects.
• In his first three years, Dunleavy made extreme funding cuts, pitting permanent fund supporters against education advocates, and only could propose a budget with a bigger dividend and no cuts because of higher oil revenues “from blood money from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
• Alaska has had net out-migration of 20,000 people, with fewer teachers than 10 years ago, Gara said.
• If elected, they will work to do away with petroleum subsidies — as Gara said he tried to do when he was in the Alaska Legislature with former Rep. Paul Seaton.
• If elected, they will increase the state capital budget, creating more construction jobs, and fund renewable energy projects.
• To protect fisheries, they also will address the issue of bycatch by Outside factory trawlers.
“Every year we dump over 1,000 tons of halibut and salmon and crab dead to the bottom of the ocean,” Gara said. “And it’s not a way to maintain a fishery.”
The Gara-Cook team looks to the future, Gara said.
“We have revenue in the state and we can build the state and fund our schools and do the things that create a future.”
Cook said she’s pleased all three of her grandchildren now live in Alaska, “which makes me very happy.”
“Well, the reason I’m running for lieutenant governor is, I want my grandchildren to have a future and the opportunities I had in Alaska,” she said.
In the interview and at the meet-and-greet, they also talked about hot-button issues like critical race theory, abortion rights, gun control and the Pebble Mine.
Cook said that as a teacher, one of her favorite subjects is social studies.
“I encourage my students to celebrate areas that our nation has, you know, experienced great achievements, and to learn from areas where maybe we haven’t been so positive and make mistakes, and we learn from those mistakes, so we don’t make them again, but we can grow from them,” she said. “But wholeheartedly, if you teach the truth, you don’t have to worry about theories.”
Gara called critical race theory “a red herring for people to say that they don’t want to teach people the truth about our history of racism.”
He said most people aren’t racist, but there are enough people who are that we need more education.
“Part of making sure we don’t have a racist society in the future is to reduce the voices of those people who are racist, and do that through education,” Gara said.
On abortion rights, Gara said they’re the only candidates who are both pro-choice.
“We hope that we are not fighting over abortion for four years,” Gara said. “But I will protect a woman’s right to choose.”
Gara touted a grade of F he got from the National Rifle Association because when he was in the Legislature he opposed a bill that wouldn’t let cities enact stricter gun-control laws than the state. Anchorage passed a law banning guns in bars, for example, and that state law would have prevented that.
He also said he believes people have the right to defend themselves, and noted that Alaska is a strong Second Amendment state.
“My view is that Alaskans are sensible enough to agree to some things that will reduce gun violence,” Gara said.
For example, he noted how when former Vice-president Mike Pence was governor of Indiana, he helped pass a “red flag” law that through due process would temporarily remove firearms from somebody who threatens to kill themselves or someone else. The Legislature came close to passing such a law when he was in office, but the NRA stopped it.
On the Pebble Mine, Gara said he would “put a stake in the heart of that.” Dunleavy is one of the few people in the state who still supports it, he said.
“It defines who this governor is,” Gara said. “He will side with a large corporation — and even a Canadian corporation — before he sides with the people of the state.”
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.