By Heidi Zemach for SCN-
Before you sigh and repeat the worn old mantra that Alaska’s lone Congressman Don Young, its longest serving Republican is unbeatable in this state, don’t discount the potential power of this energetic, smart, savvy young man with considerable Alaska credentials going for him.
Forrest Dunbar, a 29-year-old attorney who calls Cordova home, is running on the democratic ticket to unseat longtime U.S. Rep. Don Young (R) in the November 4th General Election. Dunbar, who has the endorsement of the state’s Democratic Party, introduced himself to local residents at the Resurrect Art Coffee Shop and Gallery in Seward Thursday, June 19th. By the end of the evening, he had made believers of many of the 20-25 residents who showed up to see him —or at least obtained promised votes. He hopes to continue to do so as he campaigns throughout far-flung Alaska communities.
To his surprise, no matter where he goes, even in Seward, nobody seemed concerned about his age, or his qualifications to conduct national politics, Dunbar said. Folks mostly want to know how he plans to beat the senior representative. Alaskans want fresh, more effective representation by their only House representative, and someone who is willing to work across the aisle for them, he said, and Dunbar believes he can be that fresh face.
“Forrest is a very interesting young man,” said Willard Dunham, a lifelong Seward Democrat. “(It) should be a good show if he can draw (his) opponent out in the campaign.” Later, he added, “Think Eric Cantor.” The House Majority Leader’s unexpected defeat in Virginia’s recent state primary defeat gives Dunbar even greater confidence these days as it points to the unpredictability of elections these days, and to the possibility that even when large sums of money are spent on a candidate, it doesn’t always equal votes.
The longtime incumbent representatives’ effectiveness has diminished to practically the level of a freshman, and has been that way since 2008 when the republican leadership began preventing him from chairing house committees, or acting as a ranking member of them, Dunbar said. Young only got three bills passed this year, and they were noncontroversial bills that even his nemesis, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voted for.Furthermore, he sees Young as particularly vulnerable in the upcoming election with his recent ethics fines, and lack of leadership or effectiveness following corruption allegations centering on the Coconut Road development project in Florida that Young inserted into an appropriations bill on behalf of a campaign donor.
Dunbar has repeatedly challenged Young to debate him publicly. But the 41-year Alaska representative hasn’t been willing to do so—at least until after the state primary. To Dunbar, who could use all the name recognition he can get, that’s too long to delay.
Dunbar’s challenge is to fight the common belief among Alaskans that the more seniority one has, the more effective one can be for Alaska, was true once, when elder statesmen like Sen Ted Stevens could “bring home the bacon” in terms of getting capital projects funded in the state. That isn’t true anymore, especially in Rep. Young’s case, Dunbar said.
One of the campaign tactics that he’s willing to share at this point, is taking an edgy social-media approach to introducing himself to Millennial Generation. Dunbar’s edgy lip-syncing social media parody of Forrest Gump to the tune “Your Love,” by The Outfield, has even attracted national attention. He changed the words of the song from “I wanna earn your love tonight” to “I wanna earn your vote to-niiiight,” and part of it features Dunbar racing across varied Alaska landscapes to the words, “Run Forrest Run,” easily passing downhill skiers. Another ad features him firing his rifle at a post holding Republican Paul Ryan’s budget, which Young voted in favor of four times. After shooting it with great satisfaction, he proclaims: “I’m pro-gun, and I will NEVER vote for that!”
He’s also planning a good deal of traveling and meeting the people wherever he can no matter how small the community is, or how remote.
What are his issues?
Dunbar is pro-gun rights, has owned a gun, and lived around guns and hunting all his life, he said. But he disagrees with what he views as the extreme views of the NRA’s leadership and their exaggerated claims that the federal or state government is out to take away people’s guns. He feels the NRA should not support political candidates solely on their stance on gun rights, when many other factors lead to crimes and mass shootings. It’s hypocritical for the NRA leaders to talk about the need for improved mental health system after some recent mass shootings, while also backing conservative representatives like Young who voted four times to support the Paul Ryan budget that severely limits funding for things like Medicaid and mental health care, Dunbar said.
Dunbar also is in favor of legalizing marijuana and regulating it like alcohol.
“The war on drugs currently fought is a hugely expensive failure. It’s not a criminal justice matter, but rather a public health crisis,” he said. Dunbar reached this conclusion having intensively researched the U.S. war on drugs, and the prison system. More people are currently locked up in prison for committing non-violent, drug related crimes than are there for committing violent offences, he noted. Many of those people could have been helped by having their addictions treated as a public health issue. He acknowledged however that alcohol, although legal, is responsible for many of Alaska’s biggest problems: suicide, domestic violence and sexual assault.
He’s strongly pro-choice, and believes the choice of obtaining an abortion should remain between a woman and her doctor, and that politicians shouldn’t get involved in limiting it. He’s also passionately in favor of gay rights, and returning marriage equality in Alaska. It upsets him that younger sister, a lesbian, had to leave her home state to get married Outside after gay marriage became officially unconstitutional here.
Dunbar also would like reforms made to the federal student loan system, which, he says, has encouraged colleges and universities to increase the cost of education, thus leaving many graduates burdened under student loan debt, often unable to purchase houses, or start families and businesses. He favors raising the minimum wage.
Dunbar is pro-oil development, and in favor of building a natural-gas pipeline, but would vote Yes on Ballot Measure 1 to repeal Senate Bill 21 unless the Alaska governor calls a special session and the legislature agrees to tie oil company tax breaks to proof of actual new oil development. He also would favor opening ANWR, provided that it wouldn’t interfere with the Gwichin’ people’s traditional means of subsistence, caribou.
His background and experience
Dunbar is originally from Eagle but grew up in Cordova, where his father Roger moved the family after the ’89 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in order to study its effects for the Fish and Game Department. His mother Miriam is still the city librarian. Theirs was the only Jewish family in town as far as he knows, but now that he’s based in Anchorage, he’s able to attend Anchorage’s Congregation Beth Shalom.
He has a master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard, a law degree from Yale Law School- but he doesn’t have to stand next to a fisherman or put on X-tra Tuffs and pose for the cameras to appear truly Alaskan. Dunbar has also worked as commercial fisherman and at a local cannery in Cordova and during the summers while attending the American University in D.C. on a full scholarship. As a former commercial salmon fisherman, he strongly opposes Pebble Mine.
Dunbar’s also experienced in fighting fires in Interior Alaska, served for a term in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, and has begun serving in the military. He recently took four months off the campaign to train with the Alaska National Guard, and he also trained as a judge advocate in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps.
Dunbar says he’s two years younger, but more experienced in federal politics than Young was when he first ran for office. He’s interned at Capitol Hill for Sen. Frank Murkowski and was a staffer for Congresswoman Madeline Bordallo (D- Guam). He also worked with Alaska House Rep. Ethan Berkowitz. At Yale Law School, Dunbar focused on Alaska issues, especially the federal ownership of land. During his first summer he returned to work at Alaska Legal Services, representing low-income families. The next one he worked at two law firms representing oil companies and Native corporations. After becoming an attorney he worked as a public defender, spending a year on a fellowship researching U.S. drug policy for the Office of Public Advocacy.
The last time he was in Seward, was as member of the Cordova High School team, participating in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, Dunbar said. The team lost to Kodiak, but were happy to have placed second that year.
That may not be as true for the General Election, however.
(Note: Seward City News does not endorse Forrest Dunbar)