Gubernatorial candidates were snowing down Tuesday on Juneau's Centennial Hall as five stopped by for a dinner forum and two potential runners made speeches.
Candidates spoke to members of the Alaska State AFL-CIO, and issues relating to jobs became the first battleground of the election, still months away in November.
The meeting was the first gathering of known and potential candidates running for governor this year.
Former Gov. Tony Knowles spoke to the union about his vision for a natural gas pipeline and criticized how the Murkowski administration is handling gas line contract negotiations.
It was one of Knowles' first public speeches since his run for U.S. Senate in 2004. He said he is not sure whether he will throw his hat in the race.
"I truly have not made up my mind," he said.
His speech called for a fair look at all three proposals for the gas line and open negotiations for the public, while the governor has held closed negotiations and has given little weight to an all-Alaska pipeline, Knowles said.
Car rental businessman and former state Rep. Andrew Halcro announced his candidacy to reporters Tuesday and later participated in the evening with the other four who have already proclaimed their intentions to run.
House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz and Rep. Eric Croft, both from Anchorage, are seeking the Democrat nomination. Republicans in the running are former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin and Fairbanks businessman and former state Sen. John Binkley.
Halcro said he is running as an independent.
"I don't think I can make it out of a closed (Republican) primary," Halcro said. He describes himself as a moderate Republican who is liberal on some social issues such as abortion, but fiscally conservative.
"I want a governor who understands the cost of providing health care," he said. "And I want a governor who understands the cost of not providing health care."
The candidates, speaking 10 minutes each, expressed desires to change or improve a controversial new public employee and teacher pension plan that starts this summer, support for building a gas pipeline that runs only through Alaska and making sure Alaska residents are getting jobs offered in state.
"This is the worst, most dangerous piece of legislation I've seen in the 10 years I've been in the Legislature and we need to continue to fight against it," said Berkowitz, about the new pension system that is modeled after 401(k) accounts.
He said it's a key issue because it takes money out of workers' pockets, takes economic power away from organized labor and helps silence the political voice of labor.
Palin also said she was disappointed with Senate Bill 141, the bill that created the retirement system last year. She said her father, a retired Alaska teacher, should not have to worry about the government tampering with his pension.
She also sees the state being threatened by corporations and special interests eager to gobble up state resources.
"Resource development is to be for the maximum benefit of Alaskans," Palin said.
Croft said he wants to build a gas pipeline in the near future by pressuring the oil companies to move ahead or face tax repercussions. Otherwise, Croft said, the state should look at other offers on the table.
Binkley, who represented Bethel while in the Legislature, said he hopes jobs don't go to people outside of villages when rural projects are being built. Several candidates said they would campaign to increase vocational education opportunities for young people.
Gov. Frank Murkowski, who has not announced if he will run for reelection, also stopped by in the morning to address the union. His staff said Murkowski planned to make an announcement this week, but that has been postponed. Spokeswoman Becky Hultberg added that he continues to focus on the gas pipeline negotiations.
In his speech, Murkowkski said his administration has created 13,600 jobs and several thousand more may be on the way if a gas pipeline is built.
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