KENAI — In as much as could be shared in one-minute increments, the three candidates for one of Alaska’s two U.S. Senate seats expounded issues in Cook Inlet, the state and nationwide during a Tuesday forum in Kenai.
The format of the discussion did not allow for debate or much back-and-forth between candidates, as they answered questions on a variety of topics ranging from bluff erosion and fishing to the federal role in oil and gas development, and safeguarding against Ebola.
The candidates — Democratic incumbent Mark Begich, Republican Dan Sullivan and Libertarian Mark Fish — are in the final stretch of campaigning. Alaskans will head to the polls Nov. 4 to decide who will represent them for the next six years.
During the hour-long discussion, Sullivan repeatedly tried to tie Begich to the policies of President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to development; and the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
“This is, again, where Mark Begich and I, we just have differences of opinion,” Sullivan said in response to a question on the effectiveness of Obamacare and its effect on Alaskans. “He was the deciding vote on Obamacare, I was the attorney general who sued to stop it. It’s clearly an important issue for Alaskans. But, the promises that were made by the President, by Mark, by Nancy Pelosi, that you could keep your health care, that costs would go down, you could keep your doctor if you wanted, none of that is happening.”
Begich ignored many of the jabs, but dismissed the allegation that he was the deciding vote on Obamacare, saying that it was a tactic used on Senate candidates nationwide.
Still, he said, he supports the law.
“When I ran for office, the number that was out there was 34 percent of Alaskans who tried to get an individual policy were denied,” he said. “Today, no one gets denied. Is it a perfect bill? No. Is there work to be done? Absolutely. But, it will not be repealed. People who think it will get repealed are dreaming. The law is in place, what are we going to do to fix it?”
Begich criticized Gov. Sean Parnell’s policies several times and on Obamacare, he said Parnell’s refusal to accept expanded Medicaid funding was hurting the state.
“That’s an opportunity for us, for 40,000 Alaskans to be covered,” he said.
Libertarian candidate Mark Fish said he was running to represent Alaskans whose voices were not being heard, and that trend has continued on the campaign trail, he said.
“I want to talk about free and fair elections and getting into the debates,” Fish said during his closing remarks. “I don’t know if the folks know it, but every televised debate, I’ve been shut out of … it’s an injustice to all you folks and you should be outraged about it.”
Each candidate was asked why they had decided to run under the party platforms they’d chosen. Fish said Libertarians believed in the free will of the individual.
“An individual has a right to their life, their will and their property and the government’s job is to ensure those rights,” he said. “We got two other parties represented (here) that do share some of those values, but what they’re doing is they’re not acting on some of those values.”
Sullivan had a similar response.
“I’m running as a Republican because I believe in policies of less government and more freedom,” he said.
Begich said being an Alaska Democrat was very different than being a Democrat in other parts of the country.
“I’m pro-guns, pro-oil and gas development, I have libertarian streaks when it comes to the Patriot Act, which I don’t support,” he said. “I supported a piece of legislation that Rand Paul is doing on auditing the feds, but also I support public education … I believe we have an obligation as a community to make sure people have opportunities to rise above and give them opportunities for the future.”
On Alaska’s fisheries, Sullivan said Begich had been part of the problem with inaction on fisheries issues that could negatively affect Alaskans, including a moratorium, set to expire soon, on an EPA regulation on discharge permits for commercial vessels. Without the moratorium, commercial and charter fishing vessels could be required to get permits for discharges under the Clean Water Act.
Begich said the moratorium would be extended for at least a year and possibly three.
“The vessel discharge bill is a priority … but I want a permanent fix for this. I will get this done, as we have every single year, to keep the EPA off the backs of our fishermen, our shippers, our freight carriers, all of them because it’s an outrageous regulation.”
Sullivan said the issue needed action.
“I would start moving on things, I wouldn’t just be talking about things,” he said. “This EPA moratorium, you know Senator Begich and others have been talking about this for years. Well, two months out, our small fishermen are going to get nailed with this new EPA regulation … these are the kinds of things we need action (on). Not bills, not talk, action to take care of our communities.”
Fish said, if elected, he would focus on defending the borders of the fisheries.
“I’m not sure where the fish are going, but I know in the middle of the Bering Sea, there’s not a lot of enforcement. With foreign entities coming in, I’m concerned about the piracy of Alaska’s resources by … other nations.”
Sullivan and Begich did agree on a few things, one being a vote against Ballot Proposition 2, which would legalize recreational marijuana use in the state.
Fish said he supported the proposition, primarily because it was already a multi-million dollar industry in the state.
But Begich and Sullivan said they could not support an initiative that could lead to their children being enticed into experimenting with the drug.
“I also think other states that have now passed this, such as Washington and Colorado, they’re now admitting this is some kind of experiment. They don’t know how this is going to turn out,” Sullivan said. “I don’t want to experiment on our kids.”
On ISIS and Ebola, each candidate said the federal government did not seem to have a comprehensive strategy for handling the threats.
Begich said he didn’t agree with President Obama’s idea to fund the rebels, while Fish said the situation in the Middle East was becoming untenable due to the action of several previous presidential administrations.
“It has gotten so ridiculous now that they’re bombing our own equipment while dropping humanitarian supplies to the people we’re fighting,” he said. “This is nuts, let’s stop it.”
Sullivan said he considered the threats to be a sign of America’s weakened standing in the world.
“In my view weakness is provocative and that’s why there are so many crises in the world,” he said.
“Whether it’s Russia, whether it’s ISIS, whether it’s Ebola, whether it’s the border, to me, we need to have that kind of engaged leadership … I’ll be ready from day one to help address what is really a dangerous world out there.”
Rashah McChesney is the city editor at the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.