Democratic candidate for governor Les Gara was in Juneau last week campaigning. The candidate sat down with KTOO’s Jeremy Hsieh on Friday to talk about why he’s running, the state’s finances and how he thinks the new ranked choice voting system will play out.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeremy Hsieh: Why don’t you just introduce yourself and say what you’ve been doing in elections this year.
Les Gara: It’s been interesting running for governor. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I saw what this governor has been doing. And my view is based on how I grew up. My father was killed when I was 6, I grew up in foster care. And I just developed this view that everybody deserves an opportunity to succeed in this world. Everybody deserves a good education. Everybody deserves the ability to get a good paying job. I believe in a living minimum wage so that you can work full time and not live in poverty. Those things matter to me. And I just don’t see this state moving in a direction that gives anybody a chance to succeed unless you’re already born wealthy.
This governor has sort of ripped apart, ripped out the rug from under, I think, anybody born with any difficulty. I had my own hardship growing up, but most people have some sort of hardship growing up — it doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to equal opportunity and the right to succeed in this world. And that’s really what’s motivating me to run against this governor.
And there are so many people in the state who have so much potential but so many roadblocks in front of them. And they don’t deserve the roadblock of public education that’s been cut to the point where it’s $120 million behind inflation since 2014, continual neglect of our public education, continual neglect of our construction budget, so that we don’t have jobs in the state. You know, people look at the state, parents say, “Look, there’s no commitment to public education. We don’t see a job future for our kids, we’re leaving.” And under this governor, 20,000 more people have left the state than have come up here. I mean, this is the biggest export Alaska has right now is people and, and that’s just not the way to run a state and, and my ethic says you need the opportunity to have a good job so you can work and succeed.
Jeremy Hsieh: Sounds like you’ve got a lot of issues with the current governor. Why did you feel this was a race you should step into, with some of these other candidates?
Les Gara: He’s had no plan, you know? I mean, he’s like — he’s the quintessential 1980s liberal: he proposes the spending but not the way to pay for it. And I would produce a permanent fund dividend people could bank on. And I would end this debate between, you either get a dividend or you get schools or you get a university or you get a marine highway. No, you get those things, right? Those are things you get, but we have to end this $1.3 billion in unjustifiable oil company tax subsidies. This governor has chosen to make us poor. I’ll put this state back on a road to prosperity again.
Jeremy Hsieh: Advocates for oil tax industry subsidies would say they’re needed to maintain flow in the pipeline, royalties that are derived from that and just that chunk of the economy, keeping it vibrant. Sounds like you think there’s still a lot of room there for the state and the people to get a bigger piece of it without jeopardizing that? Or is the end goal to try to transition off of oil? What’s your thought there?
Les Gara: You have to have a vibrant oil industry. I mean, you want to make sure the tax is fair to them. If we ended these oil company tax subsidies, what we would have is a 35% tax on oil company profits. We don’t have that. But if we ended these tax credits, that would be the effect, you’d have a 35% tax on corporate profits. And, look, you could adjust that up or down just a little bit, but it’s $1.3 billion we’re leaving on the table. And I voted to end those credits in the past. I’ll work with the Legislature to end them. Those people who want a bigger PFD need money to pay for a PFD, unless they’re going to keep making it a false promise. People who want education funding know that they need funding. People who believe in a marine highway system know that it needs funding. You have to build a coalition of legislators who want different things and say, “Look, it’s a false promise by all of you, if you if you don’t have the money to pay for it.”
This year, we have the money to pay for it because Russia is murdering people. That’s why we have money to pay for it this year. Hopefully Russia will not be murdering people next year and the price of oil will be back down. And when that happens, we’re going to need revenue again.
Jeremy Hsieh: A lot of the policy goals you laid out require acts of the Legislature. And the Legislature, it’s got some issues building consensus within it. How do you think you would cut through?
Les Gara: You know, I’m not a partisan person. I believe that you have to work across the aisle. I passed the largest foster care reform in state history in 2018. As a Democrat through a Republican Senate, and not only through Republican Senate, but the Senate president, the most conservative of them all, invited me on the Senate floor that day to watch that bill pass.
There are going to be at least 59 legislators I believe I can work with. You know, Rep. (David) Eastman by himself, he just votes no on everything reflexively. I’ll bring him into my office and say, “Do you want to be part of the team? Or should I just work with the other 59 people?”
Jeremy Hsieh: You’ve run for office many times, maybe not statewide, but what’s different about the new election system from a candidate’s perspective?
Les Gara: The big purpose of ranked choice voting was to let you vote for your favorite candidate, and not have to choose your second choice candidate. And it says, “Look, if you want your second choice candidate, put them second.”
In August, you only get one vote. Vote for the candidate you want to make it to November. The top four candidates then go to November.
And in November, then you rank your candidates. Rank your candidates the way you believe in them. If you’re worried about Mike Dunleavy being reelected, you can vote for me first, Bill Walker second. And Mike Dunleavy doesn’t get any of those votes.
In this case, I think, you know, Bill Walker, who will be my second choice, we’ll share votes. His voters will probably pick me as their second choice, my voters will probably pick him as their second choice. One of us will make it through.
Jeremy Hsieh: Capital move, capital creep, that’s always on the mind of folks in the capital city. I don’t know if you have any commitments or promises you can make about where you’ll physically be if you’re elected governor, and where your commissioners and, you know, various state employees will be.
Les Gara: Sure, Juneau is the state capital, right? I mean, you know, this whole idea of trying to secretly move the capital out of Juneau by sending employees out of Juneau is not something that I support. It’s the capital city. When I’m down here working with the Legislature, I want to have my commissioners down here working with the Legislature, not just two days a week, I’m going to need them all week. And if they don’t want to do that, then they’re not going to be my commissioner. This is the capital city. And I support that.
Jeremy Hsieh: At some point when Sen. Dennis Egan was still in office, he had been perennially pushing a public employees retirement overhaul. I don’t believe it passed.
Les Gara: No.
Jeremy Hsieh: Do you personally benefit from one of these retirement systems or not?
Les Gara: I came up to Alaska in 1988, and we still had what was the second version of the pension system, less generous than the first version. I worked in Fairbanks for a supreme Justice Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz, and then I moved to become an assistant attorney general on the Exxon Valdez oil spill case, in the civil prosecution. So I’m what’s called tier II. Tier III was less generous. And tier III is something that I think is quite affordable, something like tier III. So you know, we don’t have to give luxury pensions, but we should give a basic pension so people can retire. And so they have an incentive to stay here.
You know, I was in the Legislature when they ended the pension system. And I voted against ending it. I said, If you end this, people will have no incentive to stay in Alaska, we will have worker turnover, and people will not have an affordable way to retire. So I voted against ending pensions in 2006. I’m the only person running for governor right now, who when they were an office, moved to try to restore pensions. So I co-sponsored legislation to return to a cost-effective pension system.
I’ve always been there on pensions, ‘cause I believe that right now, we have too much worker turnover. We have worker turnover among teachers, among troopers, among police, among all sorts of public servants, among marine highway workers.
We spend the money training employees, and then at the five-year mark, then they move to another state that has a pension. So we’re just wasting money training people who leave — no business would do that. No business would say, “Hey, we’re going to train people for our competitors.” That’s what the state of Alaska does. We’re wasting money doing that.
KTOO will sit down for interviews with other candidates for governor when they campaign in Juneau.