Pierce would seek to reduce spending, boost education as governor

The borough mayor sat down with the Clarion at his Sterling home to discuss his gubernatorial platform

Charlie Pierce likes results. That’s what the 2022 gubernatorial candidate made clear during an interview with the Clarion at his Sterling home Thursday.

He’s the current mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough and a former manager at ENSTAR Natural Gas Company who’s vying for Alaska’s vote this fall.

His home office is filled with pictures of his family — he has five sons and 11 grandkids — as well as memorabilia from his time at ENSTAR. A glass case holds collections of coins and a “Trump 2020” hat signed by the former president, and stacks of white “Charlie Pierce for Governor” sweatshirts rest on the kitchen table.

Pierce has touted a “Results not Rhetoric” slogan that he says he’s lived up to in his time as mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough since being elected in 2017.

Under the open primary voting system, which goes into effect this year, the top four vote-getters in the gubernatorial race, regardless of political party, will advance to the November general election.

Open primaries, along with ranked choice voting, are among the changes to Alaska’s state election system that were narrowly approved by voters during the 2020 election. Under the changes, Alaska will become the first U.S. state to hold both open primaries and a ranked choice general election in the same year.

Pierce announced at a campaign event at Paradisos Restaurant in Kenai last weekend that he has selected Edie Grunwald, of Palmer, to be his lieutenant governor.

Grunwald told the crowd at Paradisos that she was resigning as chair of the Alaska Parole Board to accept Pierce’s nomination. She’s a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who rose to prominence in Alaska as a victims’ rights advocate following the 2016 murder of her son, David.

“Edie Grunwald is a first-class lady,” Pierce said Thursday. “When we picked her, we were very, very careful in looking out for all Alaskans. … She’s very, very qualified.”

If elected, Pierce said he’d bring to the governor’s office a desire to reduce state spending, a commitment to boosting educational outcomes among Alaska students and a culture of accessibility.

Among the first things Pierce said he’d evaluate for cost savings are existing automatic pay increases for state employees, a freeze on the hiring of new state employees and the frequency of travel for state employees.

“I think that there was probably a time and a place in Alaska where we could afford to do those types of things,” Pierce said. “I think, if you look at the economy that we’re in today, and the amount of money we’re generating in the state, you have to question whether you can continue and whether those items are sustainable.”

Pierce opposes the implementation of new taxes, such as a statewide sales or income tax, to help balance the state’s budget, and said he was able to balance a deficit borough budget he inherited when he took over as mayor. Though the state budget is much larger than that of the borough, Pierce said the principles behind his approach would be the same.

“I’m not saying that I’m going to come in and sweep your budget, but … as a commissioner, you’re going to justify what’s in your budget and you have to be able to justify it to the people of Alaska,” Pierce said. “All Alaskans need to know that what you’re spending is responsible spending.”

He said he’d also like some of the ballot initiatives passed by voters to be brought back for consideration, such as statewide support for the move of the state capitol to a place accessible to more people.

Pierce criticized what he said is Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s failure to deliver on campaign promises. Those promises include a statutory Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, more natural resource extraction in Alaska and a statewide boost in private investment.

“I don’t see in the Legislature or in the (Dunleavy) administration … a whole lot of urgency to get anything done,” Pierce said.

A key area Pierce said he would prioritize as governor is educational opportunities and outcomes. He said he supports the Alaska Reads Act, which would provide reading intervention for struggling students and special training for teachers.

Pierce wants to see reading comprehension reach above 90% among Alaska’s school-age children. He also wants expanded trade school and vocational opportunities for high school students.

“Imagine for a moment the disservice we’re providing by not making certain that we’re spending the dollars that are appropriated for education in the right way,” Pierce said.

Performance Evaluation of Alaska’s Schools, or PEAKS, assessments are administered annually to Alaska’s third through ninth grade students. Results from 2021 show that local students tend to have higher scores than statewide averages, but that all grade levels struggle to hit 50% proficiency in math and reading.

Within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, where 70% of students took PEAKS assessments in 2021, sixth grade students had the highest English Language Arts proficiency rates at 56.5%. The highest statewide ELA proficiency rate was 46.9% among sixth grade students.

Pierce said Alaska’s education infrastructure needs to “keep up with” students, who he said are more savvy when it comes to technology and are “bored” with standardized education models.

“The better the education you provide for an individual, the better their life,” Pierce said. “Their lives will be totally changed if we provide the best education possible.”

If elected, Pierce said he’d work to foster an open-door policy and meet regularly with department commissioners and the Legislature and would like to have a “peacemaker” working as a direct liaison between himself and lawmakers. A key feature of his leadership style, Pierce said, is his determination to empower employees to make decisions and to then hold people accountable for those decisions.

“I set the tone, I set the expectations, and that’s what leaders do,” Pierce said. “Leaders set the expectations and then they make sure that staff and support individuals have the tools and the means to accomplish the end results. It’s about results.”

When asked where he wants Alaska to be in five years, Pierce said he wants to see 90% literacy rate among students, higher graduation rates at state universities and a robust economy that supports small businesses. Broadly, Pierce said he wants to see Alaska be better than it is right now.

“I want Alaskans to love where they live and see and have opportunities that perhaps we haven’t seen in the past,” Pierce said. “We’ve got to turn over every rock … and make sure that we’re not missing out on opportunities.”

A filing with the Alaska Public Offices Commission shows that Pierce had contributed $1,000 to his campaign as of Feb. 1. Pierce filed to run for governor on Jan. 21 and has held multiple campaign events since Feb. 1.

Between now and the August primary, Pierce said his priority is making himself better known to Alaskans outside of the Kenai Peninsula, the Matanuska-Susitna region and Anchorage.

“I think that, as people get to know me and understand the results that I have produced as mayor … they will agree with me that we need a business person that has demonstrated a considerable amount of results,” Pierce said. “ … I’ve got a track record of producing results, favorable results, and Alaska could use a little positive results today.”

Incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy, former state legislator Les Gara, Alaska House Rep. Christopher Kurka, Libertarian candidate William Toien, Republican Bruce Walden and former Gov. Bill Walker are also vying for the position of governor. The 2022 state election primary will be held on Aug. 16.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

A hat signed by former U.S. President Donald Trump is displayed in Charlie Pierce’s home office on Thursday, March 10, 2022 in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A hat signed by former U.S. President Donald Trump is displayed in Charlie Pierce’s home office on Thursday, March 10, 2022 in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Charlie Pierce stands in his home on Thursday, March 11, 2022 in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Charlie Pierce stands in his home on Thursday, March 11, 2022 in Sterling, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)