Republican leading Alaska gubernatorial race a mystery on commercial fishing issues

By Jason Huffman Oct. 18, 2018 18:32 BST

Every major candidate in every Alaska gubernatorial, US Senate or House election since 1991 — and in quite a few state legislative races, too — has met on the stage in Kodiak to debate issues related to the state’s commercial fishing industry.

They never miss it, such is the importance of fishing to the state of Alaska.

But Mike Dunleavy won’t be at the Gerald C. Wilson Auditorium this Monday to square off against his two main political combatants in the latest race for governor, independent incumbent Bill Walker and Democratic candidate Mark Begich.

Instead, the 57-year-old Republican, former state senator and educational consultant — who has been leading the 2018 race for governor of the state by a wide margin in all recent polls — will be “visiting with Alaskans in Barrow,” a town more than 1,200 miles away in the northern part of the state, his staff reportedly informed the debate organizers this week.

The decision serves to further confound the fishing captains, seafood processors and many laborers in Alaska’s massive commercial fishing industry just three weeks before they’ll join other Alaskans in voting booths. They’re struggling to learn more about what their next likely governor might do such issues of consequence as the proposed Pebble Mine and trade with China.

And all of this as the surprise resignation Wednesday by Walker’s lieutenant governor and 2018 running mate Byron Mallott threatens to upend the race.

Plenty of fishing-related policy issues to talk about

It’s not hard to argue that the commercial fishing industry is more important to Alaska than any other state in the country.

Alaska generated $1.5 billion worth of seafood landings in 2016, almost three times the next closest state in the country (Maine had $634 million worth of landings), based on the latest data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That includes pollock, five species of salmon, five species of crab, Pacific cod, sablefish, flatfish, oysters and sea cucumbers, just to name a few of the 64 commercial species harvested.

Having landed 233,146t of fish in 2016, Kodiak — the location of the debate — is Alaska’s second-largest commercial fishing port, behind Dutch Harbor (356,977t).

The Alaskan seafood industry employs 56,800 people, including 26,500 Alaskans, according to a paper published by the McDowell Group, an Alaska-based research firm, in September 2017. Those numbers count 29,200 commercial fishermen. This in a state with a total population of only about 740,000.

Only the industries devoted to petroleum (responsible for 110,000 jobs) and tourism ($1.8bn in revenue) have arguably more of an economic impact on Alaska.

And there are plenty of Alaska fishing-related policy issues to talk about, too, Laine Welch, the long-time producer and writer of Fish Radio, a show that appears on 30 radio stations in the state, told Undercurrent this week.

Welch, one of the Alaska media personalities invited to ask questions of the gubernatorial candidates, wants to get their positions, in particular, on the Pebble Mine, an effort to take copper and gold out of the Bristol Bay region, which many fear could harm the nation’s most prolific stocks of wild salmon.

Alaskan voters are also being asked to decide on a ballot initiative (“Ballot Measure 1”) that would, if passed, provide more specificity in the rules regarding mining or dam permits, creating a more difficult second tier for larger projects, including Pebble Mine. The proponents call the initiative, “Stand for Salmon,” while opponents, which are heavily backed by energy groups, call their position, “Stand for Alaska”.

Both Walker and Begich have spoken strongly against the Pebble Mine, with Begich repeating a mantra started years ago by late Republican senator Ted Stevens: “wrong mine/wrong place”.

Dunleavy has been less committal, saying frequently that the state needs to make a decision based on studies and its previously followed regulatory process.

“Once we can examine that data, then I think a final decision can be made,” he said during a forum held at the Bristol Bay Fish Expo, in Naknek, in early June.

If the mine is going to endanger fisheries or other resources in the area, “I think we all should be against it”, he said, but added: “I do think there is a danger in politicizing this study process that we have.  In the end, if it is not a good project we shouldn’t have it permitted.”

Dunleavy, however, has been vocal in his disdain for the “Stand for Salmon” initiative, which he instead calls the “fish habitat” initiative. He tweeted in June that it “would be destructive to Alaska’s economy” and encouraged Walker to join him in opposition to the measure.

Welch said she also wants to know each candidate’s take on US president Donald Trump’s trade war with China, as Alaska is one of the state’s most effected, and how the candidate would handle the $200m budget and 1,700 staff of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G), including the funds that might be set aside for research. She wants to know what kind of person they might hire to fill the role of commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game, a position that has been held since 2014 by Sam Cotten, a former state legislator, Vietnam War veteran and a commercial fisherman.

Walker, who named Cotten to his post, has been an advocate of the seafood industry on several occasions since he was elected in 2014. He organized a trip to China in June with 40 business leaders, including several leaders of Alaska’s fishing industry. He has worked to establish direct flights to deliver more seafood to China and tourists to Alaska. And he’s set a goal of tripling Alaska’s seafood exports to China to $3bn.

Dunleavy attacked Walker in June via Twitter, suggesting the incumbent was not vocal enough in relation to the trade war with China.

“The governor claims to be “fish first” while dismissing the mining industry, then goes silent as China tries to sink a $2bn annual Alaska seafood industry with dirty trade tactics. What is the real cost of his China-first Gasline? #alaskafirst”, Dunleavy tweeted.

However, in July, Walker issued a statement expressing concern about the Trump administration’s trade war with China.

“We need the federal government to hear loud and clear what we already know in Alaska: limiting market access for Alaska businesses is not a solution. It’s a problem – one that we’re going to work to fix,” he said.

Debate to continue without Dunleavy

Dunleavy missing a debate shouldn’t come as a big surprise. He’s skipped at least four others since winning his primary contest in late August.

It was immediately after the results of the primary were known that Frank Schiro, executive director of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, told Undercurrent he began inviting Dunleavy to appear in the fishery debate, but the candidate, until this week, had declined to provide an answer, leaving the organizers to prepare for multiple scenarios.

The chamber, which has organized the Kodiak fishery debate since its beginning, will still hold the two-hour event, beginning at 7 p.m. (Alaska time) on Monday as planned, Schiro assured. Rhonda McBride, a TV news personality on KTVA, an Alaska CBS affiliate, will act as the moderator, while a panel of journalists fire seafood-related questions at Walker and Begich.

Dunleavy’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Undercurrent. But when asked a month ago by Alaska Public Media and the radio station KTOO about his record of attending just three of seven previously scheduled debates, he responded with a written statement.

“Throughout this campaign I’ve participated in nearly two dozen town halls, debates and forums – even more public events – two dozen meetings with the press, 100 radio call-ins and dozens more fairs, festivals and sporting events where I heard directly from Alaskans”, he is quoted as saying.

Dunleavy has missed debates organized by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, Alaska Municipal League, the Alaska AFL-CIO and Accelerate, an event held in Anchorage to focus on growing businesses, but he has participated in debates held by chambers of commerce in Juneau and Anchorage and also the Southeast Conference in Ketchikan, according to Alaska Public Media, the article noted.

Can Walker overcome a 54% disapproval rating?

Walker may be a known entity to the Alaska commercial fishing community, but he’s still in peril in his effort to keep his job.

Just 29% of the state’s voters approved and 54% disapproved of the 67-year-old incumbent’s performance in July when Morning Consult identified him as one of the two most unpopular governors running for reelection. Bruce Rauner, an Illinois Republican, was identified as the other.

Alaska pollster Ivan Moore last week released the latest in a series of polls his tracking public opinion in the gubernatorial race. It showed Dunleavy to be the top choice by 46.5% of some 500 likely voters who were surveyed between Oct. 1 and Oct. 6. Walker was the preferred candidate by 27.0% and Begich the top choice for 22.6%.

Only 3.9% of respondents were undecided, and the poll had a 4.4% margin of error.

One of the big reasons Walker is less popular in Alaska is because he has repeatedly worked to reduce something Alaskans have come to rely on – the permanent fund dividend (PFD). Typically every year for decades, the state has sent a check worth as much as $2,000 to every one of its residents, a gift made possible by the incredible amount of tax revenue generated by the oil industry. But starting back in 2016, as the state was facing an increasing budget deficit, due in large part to the loss of oil tax revenue, Walker started making moves to reduce the size of the PFD checks.

Dunleavy has used Walker’s reduction of the permanent fund dividend checks to his advantage in political advertisements, promising to restore the payments.

In fact, if the Republican candidate had his way, the PFD might be further enhanced with money collected from the commercial fishing industry. As a state senator, in 2016, Dunleavy argued for legislation that would create a 12.5% royalty to be charged on seafood caught in the state.

However, should 56-year-old Begich, who lost his US Senate seat to Dan Sullivan in 2016, drop out of the gubernatorial race, as many have suggested, Walker’s chances would improve immensely. Begich has thus far declined the request, but a development on Wednesday raises the possibility that he may reconsider.

Current lieutenant governor and Walker running mate  Mallott announced that he was stepping down from his position and vacating the race after making not-yet published “inappropriate comments”. Though the incident is still being sorted out, Walker was reportedly in talks Wednesday with Begich about the prospect of him stepping into Mallott’s lieutenant governor’s spot on the ticket.

It’s a move that could consolidate the votes and suddenly make Nov. 6 in Alaska much more interesting.

Dunleavy still has money to spend

Undercurrent was not able to identify endorsements of any of the major gubernatorial candidates by commercial seafood groups. But based on the political contributions tracked by, Walker seems to have a few more fans in the industry.

Across three gubernatorial elections, including one that Walker lost in 2010, he has collected $31,410 from commercial fishing. Counting his earlier runs for state Senate positions, Dunleavy has received $300 from the industry. Begich has raised $1,610 from the industry in his only state race.

Only Don Young, who is running to retain his seat in the US House, has raised more money overall than Walker in 2018: $768,712. Walker has raised a total of $538,448, while Dunleavy raised $311,330 and Begich raised $174,619.

Dunleavy has more money left in his campaign war chest with a few weeks to go, however. As of Monday’s deadline for candidates to submit final campaign finance reports before the election, Dunleavy had $153,597 left to spend, while Begich reported having $101,351 and Walker reported having $91,524, the Juneau Empire reported.

Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Billy Toien, who has not been invited to the Kodiak debate, reported having $678 left.

Dunleavy also holds a significant edge when it comes to independent expenditure groups, which are prohibited from working directly with candidates but are permitted to run ads favoring or opposing candidates or issues. The Republican Governors Association, a national group, has contributed $2.7m to an IE group known as Families for Alaska’s Future, which has spent more than $1m on Dunleavy’s campaign so far.

Also, Dunleavy for Alaska has collected $936,547 in contributions, about a third of which comes from Francis Dunleavy, Mike’s brother.

Another big supporter of Dunleavy is Robert Penney, founder and board member of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, a group that has gone head to head with commercial fishing interests on occasion. As of late July, Penney, a retired real estate developer, had spent $250,000 to support Dunleavy, according to independent journalist Dermot Cole.

The group backed by Francis Dunleavy and Penney, “Dunleavy for Alaska”, offers a video on its website that seems to prioritize recreational fishing.

“Alaska’s key fisheries are approaching a state of crisis,” the website warns. “Salmon runs on the Kenai River have fallen drastically in recent years, for example, threatening tourism and depriving Alaskans of recreation and subsistence. We need to listen to everyone affected by poor salmon runs and take steps to correct problems with fisheries management. If fisheries are managed correctly, we can ensure adequate fish for all user groups.”

A group backing Walker, called Unite Alaska for Walker-Mallott, has reported just under $1 million in contributions, mostly from unions. Its largest single contributor is another group, called Working Families for Alaska, which is a shell for contributions from Laborers Local 341, the Juneau Empire reported.

Alaska is considered one of the GOP’s best chances to reclaim a governor’s seat, but the state is notoriously hard to survey, and the three-way nature of the race makes it more unpredictable, Morning Consult noted.

Also, Alaska went in mass for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 election, picking him by double digits over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, but just 48% of Alaskans still hold a positive view of the president, according to the most recent public opinion survey by the news service.

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