By Heidi Zemach for SCN
Even if you might not have seen any of his signs around Seward, received any knocks on your door, or received his campaign literature, there is another, more moderate republican challenger running against incumbent Senator Cathy Giessel, in the August 28 state primary election.
Joe Arness, has served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education for the past 22 years, and currently presides over the board as its president. Arness also served for three years on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in the 1980s. Arness was born at the Seward Hospital, before the regional hospital came to his side of the peninsula, but has lived in Nikiski ever since. He would like to offer an alternative to incumbent Senator Giessel. Why did he put his name in the ring?
“Because it seemed to me like with the new district, (under redistricting) we should have a new representative,” Arness explained. “Mrs. Giessel is from south Anchorage, and I thought that the peninsula ought to have a name in the race.”
But it goes further than that. Arness is concerned about the partisan political games that have characterized the state senate, and the national political process, and doesn’t like it.
“I believe both in Juneau and Washington DC there’s way too much D’s against R’s, and that it gets in the way of trying to find rational solutions,” he said. In local politics, you still have a mix of people from both parties, yet they learn to work together, he said: “And I think that’s badly missing in Juneau.”
Arness says he would have at least have been a participant in the bipartisan coalition in the senate that was formed this past legislative session as a result of the 10-republican, 10 democrat member split. That way, he would have had a voice in the private meetings, where all of the important decisions really are made. Or, as a part of the caucus, he might have been given a senate committee to chair, such as the Labor and Commerce chairmanship that Sen. Giessel was offered, but turned down in order to be in the minority party, which only had four members. As part of the caucus, and chair of a committee, she would have had the opportunity to decide whether bills should be heard, or killed without a hearing, he said. As inherently undemocratic as this entire process was, he said, as one of the four republicans who chose to sit outside of that coalition, Giessel remained outside of all the action. “I think the way it operates, if you’re not in that group then you might as well stay home,” said Arness, “because what the senate does in this case happens in this coalition, not on the floor of the senate. The floor of the senate is just a formality. It’s a staged show.”
Arness and Sen. Giessel do share similar views on several things, (including opposition to the citizen’s Ballot Measure 2 for reinstating a Coastal Management Program, which he thinks is poorly constructed and invites lawsuits, and which she thinks gives too much clout to the people in coastal areas, at the expense of those in bigger cities. with larger populations. She also supports the Pebble Mine proposal, and received an A-plus rating from the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, a decidedly pro-oil and mining development business/chamber of commerce coalition. Arness meanwhile supports the idea of at least allowing the Pebble Mine proposal to be released and examined closely, before rejecting it out of hand.
But the two have greatly different views about funding and fundamentally about their support for public education. For instance the senator supports the school voucher program while he does not. At an Anchorage Tea Party Candidate Forum in late June, 20-12, Sen. Giessel, along with Senate Edu-cation Chair Kevin Meyer, said she supports the “complete privatization” of Alaska Public Schools. “State oversight of education should be minimal,” Giessel also states on her website. “Control of schools needs to be at the local community level. Standardized, one-size-fits-all programs do not make sense. She cosponsored SB 106 “K-12 Scholarship Program,” which would allow parents to use state allocated funds to send their children to public school, charter schools, private schools, specialty school (such as Gateway, for dyslexic kids), or home school.
Many in the field of public education, and those like Arness, who serve on public school boards and are entrenched in the business of improving the public school system, find this approach radical, and fear that it would threaten existing funding sources for public education.
Sen Giessel also advocates controlling state spending, while at the same time criticizing Alaska public schools performance, particularly when it comes to money for things such as Medicaid and education: “As our state budget grows, so do the “formula driven” programs, such as education and Medicaid; these two items alone make up 55% of our annual State budget.” She continues;“As our state government grows, so does payroll, benefits and retirement costs. Somewhere, sometime soon, hard decisions are going to have to be made. Choices: state income tax, state sales tax… or reduce spending to match our income. I support reducing our spending to match our income AND correcting the factors that are curtailing development of our vast resources and our under-developed private sector.” Giessel is referring here to her desire, and the Governor’s to put more oil into the Alaska pipeline by repealing ACES, the current state royalty taxes on oil companies.
Unfortunately, Arness says he under-estimated the challenge of running an aggressive and effective campaign, and has not had either the time, nor the means necessary to mount much of one throughout the vast new district this summer, while Giessel has strong backing, off-season pay as a senator, and has been actively campaigning for quite a few months. Arness, a realtor who fishes the Kenai area setnet fishery commercially, was tied up for much of the summer, waiting to see if he and his crew would be allowed to go fishing on any given day. He also was busy overseeing the extensive repair of a building he owns, which lost its roof when it collapsed over the winter. Due to the timing of redistricting decision, he only found out about the new District N shortly before the deadline to enter his candidacy. “She’s got a lot of name recognition. This is a huge district, and it requires a tremendous amount of time. And I have not had the time this summer,” he said.
The republican who wins the state primary election August 28th, will go up against challenger Ron Devon, an independent, from Anchorage, in the next election. Devon shares many of Arness’ views on the importance of supporting state funding for public education, and his concerns about the corrupt nature of partisan politics in Juneau, and the greater need for bipartisanship.