Editor’s note: The Juneau Empire will feature Q&A segments with candidates in statewide races leading into the next election. The following interview with Democratic candidate for the U.S. House Forrest Dunbar was held at the Empire’s office on April 3. It has been edited for length.
Forrest Dunbar is far from a typical Congressional candidate.
An up-and-coming Democrat in a Republican-dominated state, Dunbar is challenging incumbent Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who is the most senior member of Congress. Young had been in office 11 years when Dunbar was born in Eagle in 1984.
Dunbar told the Empire his decision to run for Congress against the grizzled veteran Young is, in part, because there are few opportunities within the state for young political leaders to get their start.
He said his experiences growing up in rural Alaska, combined with time spent working in Washington D.C. and serving with the U.S. Army, give him a unique perspective that he hopes to employ in enacting change in Congress.
Dunbar met with the Juneau Empire on April 3 to discuss his thoughts on the issues facing Alaska’s sole representative.
How would you keep your military and civilian lives separate, should you win the election?
Lindsey Graham is a full-bird Colonel. It’s not particularly unusual for Guard members to serve in elected capacity. I would come back to Alaska that service weekend. I don’t think it’s too much for Alaskans to have their representative come back to the state hopefully more than once a month. If it happened that I was to be deployed and we were activated, I would resign.
What are your thoughts on the budget picture in general?
The good news is the budget deficit has fallen in the last four years and is now at about 4 percent GDP and continues to fall. I don’t think the budget deficit at this point is the primary problem in American politics or society. The primary problem in America right now is the continuing effects of the economic downturn — how that’s impacting the working and middle class.
How about the proposed budget from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin?
The Ryan budget is irresponsible. It cuts funding for veterans’ health care; it cuts funding for Head Start; it turns Medicare into a voucher program. Though they’ve changed that a little bit — it increases the tax burden on the working and middle class. And then, rather than taking that savings and putting it into deficit reduction, which is something a lot of us would agree with, most of it goes into a giant tax cut for the most wealthy citizens and corporations. While I agree with reducing the tax burden as much as possible, I think that’s an irresponsible approach — they’re shifting cost onto the working class. It’s not fiscally conservative — it’s class warfare. It’s an irresponsible document, and out of step with what Alaskans need.
Do you think a lot of cuts to the military budget is the right way to go or do you think too much is being cut?
Let me preface by saying, my views in no way represent the United States military or any branch. We have to be very careful that the cuts are smart cuts — that we don’t just take the sequester approach and just cut across the board, because that leads to a lot of kind of stupid policy decisions that are kind of forced upon us where we’ll have a program that’s half-way developed and then it just collapses. You have to be smart about what you’re cutting. Whether we’re for it or against it, it’s simply a reality that the size of the military is going to come down, and the service branches understand that. I agree with the administration’s ideas of using more special forces and that kind of approach … so we can quickly respond to things like Al Qaeda threats all around the world. Because we have this vital and still quite large reserve component, I am quite confident that we’ll be able to meet most threats that we see on the horizon right now.
What are your thoughts on offshore development?
On this, my views are very closely aligned with Sen. Mark Begich’s, and not too far away from Rep. Don Young on a lot of stuff. Most Alaskans are much more pro-resource development than this Administration or the Lower 48 in general. Of the four you mentioned, the one I oppose is Pebble Mine. I was a commercial fisherman, I’m from a commercial fishing town, and to me the fish are forever. From what I’ve seen on the mine project as it’s currently proposed, I just don’t think it’s responsible. It’s too much of a risk to put the world’s largest open-pit mine over the most abundant red salmon fishery in the world.
How about ANWR? Open portions of it or leave it be?
(Speaking about an opinion he penned around the time of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill) It was irresponsible for us to push into these deepwater development projects — it was sort of hypocritical — while not developing this safe, flat, geologically dead area that’s right next to the taps where we could run a spur line without much of a geological impact. The critique of developing ANWR that has the most weight to me by far is the needs and cultural values of the Gwich’in people and their reliance on the caribou herd. I understand that people still live off caribou, but I think we could develop it in such a way with fail-safes. We’ll do multi-year studies, we’ll develop it in stages. If it appears to be harming the caribou, we’ll pull the plug because that’s got to be a priority to us. In the short-to-medium term, we need fossil fuels, and it makes much more sense to develop them in a highly regulated environment like ANWR versus getting them from like Brunei and the deepwater coast in the Gulf of Mexico. I do think there are people on both sides of the aisle who can be worked with on this issue.
What’s your opinion on the Roadless Rule and the Tongass National Forest being exempted from it?
I oppose the rule as currently implemented, and support the exception that was put in place for Alaska in 2003. I am heartened by the 9th Circuit decision siding with the State of Alaska, and I hope that the exception continues in place and allows for some recovery of the Southeast Alaskan timber industry.
What are your thoughts on Arctic issues? Are we doing enough to prepare for an Arctic-involved future?
No, we’re not doing enough. We need a lot more focus on it; other countries are moving a lot more aggressively into the Arctic and understanding that the Arctic is going to have a vital role in the economic, geopolitical and military future of the country. Within the Alaska community and Alaska political community, there is a recognition about this and you see leaders on both sides of the aisle doing things about this, but the country as a whole hasn’t woken up to the fact that there’s a northwest passage now, or there will be shortly. There’s a heck of a lot of resources up there that, regardless of how you feel about the environmental impact, if we don’t try to secure them, other countries will.
How do you compromise on things where people just staunchly disagree? It’s hard to find a middle ground when people are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
There are certain elements in the political spectrum on both sides where their only goal is absolute victory, and I think that’s a mistake in perspective of almost every context — not every context. There are some places where I do think there will be absolute victories. I’ll give you an example: gay marriage. I think gay marriage will be legal in every state in this country within a decade, maybe two, and whether that happens through a democratic process or through the federal courts — it’s going to happen. But most issues aren’t like that. Most issues are muddy and require compromise, and I don’t think compromise is a dirty word. The truth of the matter is often in the center and we have to learn to live and work together.
If you win this election, would you be representing the best interests of Americans or what’s best for Alaskans?
When you represent a state like Alaska, that’s sort of at the peripheral of political power and you’re the only representative from that state — you have more of a duty to represent that state than sort of being a national politician. That’s not always the case, but in a majority of the time that’s the case.
Why now? Why this run? You’re a young guy trying to take out the most senior Republican in the House of Representatives?
This Congress is fundamentally dysfunctional. I had an opportunity to live and work in Washington D.C. on the Hill and I follow federal government pretty closely, and I find it incredibly frustrating; I think we can do better, and I think we won’t do better until we have different representatives there. Why this year? Part of it is because of the Begich election. The Begich election is going to do really interesting things to Alaska politics — there’s going to be a turnout operation here, the likes of which we have never seen. So it’s going to be more like a presidential year in Alaska than a midterm year because of that tremendous amount of resources are going to be spent on get-out-the-vote efforts, and, if you look at historical data, people who are more progressive or more centrist perform better in presidential years than they do in midterm years. I think we can reach young voters in a lot of ways that other campaigns may have difficulties doing, and I think that’s really important.
What is the key issue facing the younger generation of Alaskans? Why should somebody care to get out and vote?
The central issue facing my generation is where are the good jobs going to be for our kids and grandkids. Oil production continues to decline on the North Slope, and while I believe we can increase that production and we will be increasing that production, we know that it’s not going to last forever. How do we keep our young people — our best and our brightest — in the state? I think that is the central issue facing politicians today. There are decisions being made today that are going to determine where we’re at in 10, 20 and 30 years. If you believe in this state and you believe like I do that this is a state you want to raise your children, ….we have to start discussing how we’re going to have jobs for them.