Independent Don Etheridge seeks Senate seat with labor and local Republicans’ backing

Cathy Muñoz introduces Don Etheridge as a candidate for Alaska's Senate District Q at a campaign event at Rie Muñoz Gallery on July 12, 2018. Muñoz is a former Republican House member. Etheridge is running as an independent.

Cathy Muñoz introduces Don Etheridge as a candidate for Alaska’s Senate District Q at a campaign event at Rie Muñoz Gallery on July 12, 2018. Muñoz is a former Republican House member. Etheridge is running as an independent. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)


Juneau’s Don Etheridge is running as an independent for state Senate District Q. The longtime labor lobbyist is vying for the seat against Democrat Jesse Kiehl.

At a campaign kickoff event in July for Don Etheridge, the turnout was a mix of retirees, a few local business owners, tradesmen and prominent local Republicans. Like former Republican state Rep. Cathy Muñoz, who hosted the event.

In her introduction of the candidate to the crowd, Muñoz recounted working together at City Hall when she was on the Juneau Assembly and in the Capitol.

She said Etheridge has a reputation in the Capitol for working and getting along with Republicans and Democrats, which would serve Juneau well.

“That was one of the first things they taught us in negotiating school when I was a business agent,” Etheridge said. “If you’re not talking, you’re not moving forward.”

Unions and Republicans aren’t natural allies, but there was one topic that clearly tied the crowd together.

PeggyAnn McConnochie asked the candidate what his top three issues were.

“The number one issue is we’ve got to have a sustainable budget,” Etheridge began. “My number two is jobs. … I’m really strong out there for labor, and I want to create jobs and help build the infrastructure in our community. … And the other one is — Juneau Access!”

One and two were met with polite attention. Number three? With cries of joy and applause.

Don Etheridge holds up one of the campaign signs he's hauling in his truck outside KTOO in Juneau on Aug. 7, 2018.

Don Etheridge holds up one of the campaign signs he’s hauling in his truck outside KTOO on Aug. 7. Etheridge is running for Alaska Senate Distrct Q as an independent. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The support from Republicans and construction-related unions is also apparent in his campaign finance disclosures.

“That’s been what I do. I like to build coalitions of people,” Etheridge said in a later interview. “If you can build coalitions and work with the different people, you can get things done. If you’re sitting in here in your own little party over in one corner, you’re not going to get anything done. You have to be able to work with people.”

Etheridge grew up in Juneau and graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School.

He was a commercial fisherman, worked on the pipeline, and put in 25 years with the state, retiring from shore maintenance with the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Then, he worked as a business agent for Public Employees Local 71 and Laborers Local 942.

“That’s where I got my start with the AFL-CIO. They needed somebody to help in with some of the lobbying, so I started helping out and next thing I knew, I was the lobbyist for the AFL-CIO,” he said with a laugh. “That’s been 24 years now that I’ve done that.”

Vince Beltrami, the head of the Alaska AFL-CIO, is his campaign treasurer.

While lobbyists are often vilified, Etheridge is proud of his work.

“I know that we’re looked at as evil, but I think the lobbyist has a very important role in educating legislators about what a piece of legislation will mean to their constituency,” he said. “I’m helping people. That’s the main thing that my job was, just to help people. I helped injured workers, I helped the public employees get their contracts through. … I helped on minimum wage, to get the minimum wage up.”

Etheridge is practically a fixture in hallways and committee rooms of the Capitol during the legislative session.

So why does he want to change that up?

“As you’re sitting in the hallway up there trying to talk to people, I watched, and it’s a whole lot easier for senators to get in to talk to senators than it is for lobbyists to get in to talk to senators,” he said.

To get to a sustainable budget, Etheridge said budget cuts, taxes and the framework lawmakers put in place this year to use some of the Alaska Permanent Fund for state operations have to remain in play.

But he said he’s “almost convinced” a statewide sales tax is a non-starter, politically and practically.

He hasn’t ruled out an income tax. He likes that it would capture some nonresidents’ wages and put those dollars back into the state’s economy.

Likewise, he said spending on state infrastructure, particularly on projects the federal government pays for, is a no-brainer.

“It also helps create money flow through our community by creating jobs,” Etheride said. “We have to figure out how we’re going to get more money flowing through the community, we have to figure out how to get some more outside dollars in.”

And though he wants road access to Juneau, he doesn’t discount the ferry system.

“Most of our ships are so old now that they spend a lot of time broke down rather than running,” he said. “Like the new ships coming online, that’s a great thing. I think we need to expand the ferry system to other communities so they’re not getting just one ferry a week in the winter time.”

Etheridge will face off with Democrat Jesse Kiehl in the Nov. 6 general election.

This is the last of our candidate profiles of Juneau-area statehouse hopefuls. You can find them all at ktoo.org/elections.

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