Les Gara picks teacher Jessica Cook as running mate in Alaska governor’s race

A woman standing at a lectern
Educator Jessica Cook speaks to reporters during an event where she was announced as the running mate of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Les Gara on Monday, Feb. 14, 2021. (Photo by Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Les Gara has chosen school teacher and education advocate Jessica Cook to be his running mate in the race to become Alaska’s next governor.

“She’s been an amazing advocate in the Legislature, she understands her way around the political system. And she is not a fan of inaction,” said Gara at a press event Monday afternoon in downtown Anchorage introducing Cook as his lieutenant governor candidate.

Gara, a former state representative, is the only Democrat running for governor so far this year in a crowded race. He announced his candidacy in August.

On Monday, he touted his running mate’s work in education and deep family roots in Alaska. Cook teaches sixth grade at Alpenglow Elementary School in Eagle River. She currently lives in Palmer, and previously served as vice president of the Anchorage Education Association and the National Education Association-Alaska teachers unions.

Gara said he met Cook about 15 years ago and got to know her through her work advocating for education to the Legislature.

Gara has been a frequent critic of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s COVID-19 pandemic response and Dunleavy’s push for state budget cuts. Cook echoed Gara’s criticisms of wages for public employees failing to keep pace with inflation.

“I want the best people teaching my grandchildren, I want the best officers protecting our communities. So I’m running for lieutenant governor,” Cook said at Monday’s announcement.

Cook is a lifelong Alaskan who grew up in a military family. She said she identifies as multi-ethnic, saying she’s half white and half Black. Gara said finding a qualified running mate who also reflected the diversity of Alaska was something important to him.

“We’re regionally diverse, we’re ethnically diverse — those aren’t why I picked Jessica, but let me tell you, I would have had a little knot in my stomach if it was two white men from Anchorage running,” said Gara.

Gara said he approached Cook early in his campaign about running and it was a matter of figuring out logistics with Cook’s teaching job. Cook said she’ll continue teaching through the end of the school year before transitioning to campaigning.

Gara and Cook join about a half-dozen other teams running to become Alaska’s next governor and lieutenant governor.

Dunleavy is running for re-election, and has yet to announce a running mate.

The other Republican candidates are Christopher Kurka, who is running with Paul Hueper, Bruce Walden, who is running with Tanya Lange and Charlie Pierce who has yet to announce his running mate.

Former Gov. Bill Walker is running again as an independent with lieutenant governor candidate Heidi Drygas.

Libertarian Billy Toien is running with Shirley Rainbolt.

The election on Nov. 8 will be the first to use Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system.

If the top finisher in the first round of voting in the general election receives less than half of the votes,  then the candidate who finished last is eliminated. The votes that person got are then redistributed, based on voters’ second choice. The process is repeated until a candidate is the top preference of 50% of the voters, or all ballots have been exhausted.

Alaska Public Media

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