Garas and Walkers and Bear Doctors, oh my!

Let's take a look at where the race stands. Oh, and session finally feels like session.

Happy Friday, Alaska! It’s the fifth day of the third special session of the year and the first full one with an actual appropriations bill to consider.

In this edition: Taking a look at where the governor’s race stands, the state of session, the agenda, the reading list and the weekly watching.

Garas and Walkers and Bear Doctors, Oh My! The state of the race for governor

Today, we saw former Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara make official his campaign for governor. It makes him the first and so far the only Democratic candidate in what is quickly becoming a crowded race… and judging by the escalating rumors about a certain Bear Doctor and others, I thought it would be a good time to take stock in what we know and the rumors that are circulating around the political sphere. So let’s break down the confirmed and rumored tickets:

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and “As of now, yes” Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer — He’s the governor

Word of his waning interesting in the job appears to have been greatly exaggerated, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy is, in fact, in the race for re-election. With three years that have been marked by the recall, plenty of questionable sole-source contracts, a pair of disgraced attorneys general and a litany of losing court cases that we’d all probably like a mulligan on, the governor is returning to the well that helped him get elected in the first place. Just as the Legislature is starting to show signs of compromise, Dunleavy is back with his promise of painless mega PFDs. “Give me another four years to accomplish what I couldn’t even get close to accomplishing in the first four,” is quite the campaign pitch, but then again money is money.

Still, you’d think that all would make for an incredibly perilous path to re-election, but then again not everyone is following the twists and turns of esoteric legislative battles. His biggest challenge to re-election will likely be whether or not he faces a challenger to his right. We’ve only heard rumblings on that front, but skim through a Facebook comment section or two and you’ll see there’s plenty who are dissatisfied (which is putting it lightly) with Dunleavy and his handling of the pandemic.

Former Gov. Bill Walker and Heidi Drygas — Independent, labor backed

Former independent Gov. Bill Walker announced his entrance to the race earlier this week, bringing along his former Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas as his running mate. Things went south quickly for Walker running up to the 2018 election thanks to the combination of Democratic candidate Mark Begich and the implosion of his own campaign that led to him suspending his campaign ahead of election day. It’s a race that’s filled with “what ifs,” but in retrospect it was a miscalculation to assume Walker supporters would universally flock to the Democrat. Down at his core, Walker is and has always been a pretty moderate and pragmatic Republican (after all, I heard several established Republicans privately say they would prefer Walker over Dunleavy) who has maintained strong support from organized labor. That all amounts to a recipe to lock down the center of the race, a prime spot to be in with ranked voting.

There’s plenty of support for Walker among the political establishment, but it’s going to be interesting to see how much that really translates to the broader electorate. His initial vetoes of the dividend, which kicked off the political fights we’re having today, are going to be a drag for him heading into the election as are some of his more conservative impulses when it came to handling abortion and anti-discriminations lawsuits. Still, as a centrist with Republican appeal he’s probably in one of the best positions to actually win this race.

Former Rep. Les Gara and ??? — Democrat, bone to pick with oil

Anchorage Rep. Les Gara is a good answer to Democrats’ hopes for an full-fledged progressive alternative to the centrist Walker. With an appreciation of what state services can do for the neediest Alaskans, a healthy adversarial relationship with the oil industry and the ability to put together an effective speech, Gara has certainly got what it takes to go the distance in the race.

Still, he’ll face the uphill battle that every legislator dreaming of higher office faces: Name recognition problems. Gara’s definitely got more name recognition than most, but given that organized labor’s efforts—and pocketbook—will likely be focused in on Walker, it could be tough sledding for Gara. Then again, tough sledding isn’t anything new to the former representative.

Billy Toien and Shirley Rainbolt — The Libertarians

They’re the Libertarians. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Toien and Rainbolt ultimately gel as the conservative alternative to Dunleavy and make it onto the general election ballot. They’d be wise to start picking off Dunleavy supporters.

Bear Doctor Al Gross and ??? — Independent, may or may not have killed a bear

Alright, we’re getting into the speculative candidates here. There’s been a load of chatter that U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Al Gross is considering getting into the race. While he’s not likely to excite a whole lot of the political establishment, his Senate campaign still has some residual heat that will interest the progressives. In terms of positioning in the race, Gross and Gara share some overlap but then again one has an established track record from more than a decade in elected office and the other is Al Gross.

Former DCCED Commissioner Mike Navarre and ??? — The dream of the non-Anchorage Democratic ticket

There’s been a recent push behind former Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Commissioner Mike Navarre. With a lengthy career in the Legislature and as Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor, Navarre has the unique appeal of being a Democrat who saw plenty of electoral success in the deeply conservative Kenai. Just how all of that translates to today, where politics have become even more sharply divided than they were even a few years ago, is anyone’s guess, but it’s not like the Democrats’ bench is particularly deep.

Word is he’d be picking one of the Legislature’s rising stars as a running mate, giving him on-paper appeal. Whether that is enough to differentiate him from an increasingly crowded field is, again, anyone’s guess.

Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold and ??? — The far-right, anti-tyranny ticket that may just be a bit of wishful thinking

The candidate with the most potential to make things difficult for Dunleavy is none other than Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold. There’s been a load of chatter about her potential to enter the race, but it’s frankly hard to parse out what’s legitimate rumor and what’s wishful thinking from folks who’d be more than happy to see both Reinbold and Dunleavy make an exit from state politics. Still, Reinbold has been one of the most vocally critical Republicans of Dunleavy’s handling of the pandemic and, well, just about everything else. If she’s really interested in standing up to his pandemic tyranny (or, to the rest of us, an underwhelming handling of the pandemic), it’d make sense for her to get into the race… and it’d also open up a Senate seat to a certain Anchorage assemblywoman.

Anchorage Republican Sen. Natasha von Imhof and ??? — The pro-business Republican

There’s also rumor that Anchorage Republican Sen. Natasha von Imhof, of great “The PFD is free money” fame, is seriously considering a bid. She’s on pretty much the opposite of the Republican spectrum from Reinbold in every way, but could similarly make things uncomfortable for Dunleavy. Not from a political positioning standpoint, but because she's not been shy about giving voice to her disdain of the Dunleavy administration's handling of... well... everything.

Former Dunleavy for Alaska chair Terre Gales and ??? — Out of right field

This one’s new to me, but as I was writing this up Jeff Landfield reported that Terre Gales, the guy who chaired the Dunleavy for Alaska independent expenditure group (which was essentially Dunleavy’s campaign for all intents and purposes), is also considering getting into the governor’s race as an independent. Gales’ political career includes getting trounced by Forrest Dunbar in the 2016 race for Anchorage Assembly and a run in the Republican primary against U.S. Rep. Don Young.

Bridge to nowhere

Alright. Enough of speculating on the governor’s race, let’s get back to the legislative special session.

After four largely pointless days in session, Gov. Dunleavy finally amended the special session call on Thursday night to introduce a budget bill that continues his whole “Compromise is you doing what I want” effort with the Legislature. It calls for the 50-50 PFD of $2,350 to be paid with an $1.53 billion overdraw on the Alaska Permanent Fund, an additional $1.47 billion overdraw on the Alaska Permanent Fund in the form of a transfer to the Constitutional Budget Reserve (presumably to pay for next year’s PFD) and the piecemeal funding for college scholarships and the WWAMI program. As explained by Budget Director Neil Steininger today, the legislation should largely be seen as the enacting legislation ahead of the governor’s proposal to constitutionalize the PFD. He said those constitutional amendments remain the “primary goal” of the special session.

The House Finance Committee is moving quickly with the bill, recognizing that the clock is ticking for a timely payment of dividends and the scholarship programs, and has already scheduled a Sunday hearing on the bill.

Judging by today’s meeting of the House Finance Committee, though, the whole overspending the Alaska Permanent Fund is going to be an incredibly tough sell with this committee as long as the governor is refusing to seriously engage on new revenues to balance out his plan. There are still the folks who are deeply opposed to overspending the account at all, like Rep. Bart LeBon who called it a form of “instant gratification.” However, it’s important to keep in mind that the House Majority Coalition’s stance on the overdraw has shifted in a small but significant way. In a letter sent by House Speaker Stutes earlier this week, she signaled that they may actually be open to the idea IF it’s part of a bigger plan:

“The House Majority remains steadfast regarding the need for a comprehensive fiscal solution, including only overdrawing the ERA if tied to said solution, and we have been working in good faith to that end; however, holding the PFD and other essential programs hostage while we work towards a solution is unconscionable and counterproductive to compromise.”

That’s big, which means there actually is a path to larger dividends… as long as it’s a balanced path to larger dividends. And much to the credit of the fiscal policy working group, the Legislature actually has the loose framework of precisely that path that, at least for now, Republicans and Democrats still seem engaged on. But reaching the specifics of that path will take time, hearings and negotiations that need some time and space to percolate.

However, Dunleavy’s continued fiscal fantasy that big PFDs can be paid out without significant changes to state government doesn’t provide much air for that conversation to actually take place. And it doesn’t help that the entire talk of $3 billion in “bridge” funding seems to be almost entirely in service of paying out two larger dividends ahead of the 2022 election.

The governor’s positioning has frustrated legislators and—to hear from some sources—frustrated those working within his administration. So frightened of everything that the recall represents, Dunleavy’s positioning has seemed manic and opportunistic. Department of Revenue Commissioner Lucinda Mahoney indicating the governor may actually be on board with taxes didn’t come out of nowhere, after all. Dunleavy’s electoral hopes rest largely and solely on delivering that dividend, and his underlying goal of a constitutional convention relies on dysfunction in the Legislature.

While resolving the state’s fiscal woes and constitutionalizing the PFD at a rate higher than its been ought to be the goal here, it doesn’t exactly help his message that everything’s broken and he, alone, can fix it.

As it stands, Dunleavy’s $3 billion in bridge funds don’t actually move the state any closer to a resolution as long as he’s refusing to engage on the politically difficult grounds. Without any willingness to lead on the rest of the plan or even a willingness to just get out of the way and let the Legislature hash it out, it’s looking like at best a $3 billion bridge to his re-election.

For the rest of us, it’s looking like a $3 billion bridge to nowhere.

On the agenda

11 a.m. Sunday — The House Finance Committee is set to meet to review potential amendments to the governor’s proposed budget. I would expect there to be a fight over the size of the dividend as well as the overdraw going into the Constitutional Budget Reserve. An important thing to keep in mind here with all the folks outside of Juneau is that remote legislators can vote on amendments but cannot vote on advancing the bill itself.

9 a.m. Monday — The Senate Finance Committee is set to meet. No official agenda yet, but it’s likely that they’ll be taking up the Senate version of the budget here. (They’ve also scheduled meetings throughout the rest of the week)

10 a.m. Monday, 9 a.m. Tuesday — The Alaska Redistricting Board takes public testimony at the Anchorage LIO. Call-in numbers: Anchorage 563-9085, Juneau 568-9085 and other 844-586-9085

Reading list

Weekend watching

No video essays this week. Just go watch Reservation Dogs:

Have a nice weekend, y’all!