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Independent hopes to unseat Republican incumbent in Southcentral Alaska Senate race

Ben Anderson
Aaron Jansen illustration

As this election season grinds on, set to come to a merciful end Tuesday when voters take to the polls to decide 59 of Alaska’s 60 legislative seats -- as well as the nation’s next president, a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a weighty ballot measure -- much has been said about bipartisan politics.

Two Alaska Senate candidates, one an independent newcomer, the other the Republican incumbent, are vying for a seat that stretches from the Anchorage Hillside to the northern half of the Kenai Peninsula. And they have a very different view on Alaskan bipartisansip.

This isn’t the bipartisanship of the national level -- the warm, fuzzy kind where Republicans and Democrats work together to roll up their sleeves and get things done. Rather, Alaska’s bipartisanship is more official. In the Alaska Senate, things are often decided by a coalition of 10 Democrat and six Republican senators, and have become targeted this year as supposed obstructionists to oil tax reform in the state.

“Bipartisan gridlock” is a seemingly counter-intuitive term that this reporter has heard in recent weeks as a description to how some perceive the coalition as counter-productive. Not only to oil taxes, but other legislation as well.

In Senate district N -- that one that starts in South Anchorage and travels to Girdwood, Seward and Nikiski among others -- Cathy Giessel is one of four Republicans who have stayed out of the Bipartisan Working Group, a member of the Senate Republican minority. She was first elected just two years ago, and faces a new district thanks to a lengthy redistricting process that changed her territory from Eagle River and Stuckagain Heights to the fishing communities on the Kenai.

She’s been out and about in those communities recent weeks, visiting a mock national convention in Nikiski, a chamber of commerce event in Seward, and others on the Seward and Sterling highways.

“So far, since the beginning of June, I’ve logged about 10,000 miles on my truck,” Giessel said. She’s trying to learn about the different needs of those communities, as Seward faces life as a possible new winter hub for commercial fishing fleets, and Nikiski deals with fallout from a disastrous king salmon season.

Also making the rounds on the peninsula is Ron Devon, her challenger, who is running as an Independent. Independent candidates are unusual in Alaska politics, even though many in the state -- and the district -- are registered as nonpartisan or undeclared when it comes to party affiliation.

Devon said that he would join the bipartisan coalition if he were elected. And where many see Devon as the more moderate counterweight to Giessel’s conservatism, he said his willingness to work with either party would go both ways, depending on how it would best affect the state. It should be noted that Devon’s wife is Jeanne Devon, publisher and founder of the liberal Alaska blog The Mudflats, though Devon said he stands firm in his Independent status.

“Most likely, (voters) would consider me to the left of the Republican,” Devon said of his race, “and with this incumbent, it wouldn’t take much to consider me to the left.”

That’s likely a reference to a couple of controversial topics that Giessel has been tied to in her time as a legislator, in particular a bill that would allow for “parental choice” in education, or the use of public funds for students to attend private education institutions. Giessel co-sponsored the Senate version of that bill. She also supported a bill that would have seen expectant mothers wanting to have an abortion undergo an ultrasound prior to the procedure.

For her part, Giessel said that her support of parental choice is rooted in doing what parents think is best for their children, and allowing state funds to help them realize that goal. She said she doesn’t support abolishing the public school system in Alaska, as it’s mandated by the state constitution that she said she swore to uphold.

That would seem to run contradictory to a stance Giessel took at a tea party forum when she voted in support of the “complete privatization” of the school system. Giessel later said on a Kenai radio station that she thought the question was referring only to support for parental choice, and that she doesn’t support complete privatization of education.

 As for the ultrasound legislation, Giessel seems to downplay the impact.

“It’s actually just a matter of offering the mother the opportunity to receive all the information” prior to having an abortion, Giessel said. “It would be making sure that we have a fully informed patient.”

Meanwhile, another important policy point where Giessel and Devon don’t see eye-to-eye is oil taxes, the all-consuming debate about whether to provide oil companies with a massive tax break in the hopes of spurring production. Giessel supported Gov. Sean Parnell’s tax break proposal, which would have seen a potential $2 billion-per-year reduction in taxes for the big three oil companies -- Conoco Phillips, BP, and Exxon Mobil.

Devon holds a different view. He said that the lack of public support for such tax breaks shows that the people of Alaska and the Legislature weren’t prepared for the hit in tax revenue without promises of new production from producers.

“Unless you get buy-in from everybody … it’s not going to be very popular,” Devon said. He said that you can tell the good legislation from the bad by the degree of support that it sees.

“For me, that’s what it really boils down to,” Devon said. “If you get 60 to 70 percent of the House and Senate to buy into it, it’s probably a good piece of legislation.”

All in all, the two candidates couldn’t be more different -- Devon is running on a platform of being tired of “partisan gridlock” in the Legislature, while Giessel accuses the Bipartisan Working Group of “gamesmanship” with legislation that could benefit Alaskans.

So which is it? Bipartisan, or partisan gridlock? Voters may clear up the picture come Tuesday.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben@alaskadispatch.com