Republicans from Craig and Cordova are running for the right to challenge state Rep. Albert Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat and three-term member of the state House of Representatives.
Craig Mayor Dennis Watson, a fisherman, and Cordova City Council member Gary Graham, a pilot and restaurant owner, are facing off in the Aug. 27 GOP primary race for House District 5. What's called the Southeast Islands District includes coastal communities from Metlakatla to Cordova, including Skagway, Haines, Angoon, Tenakee and Hoonah.
Kookesh, board president of the regional Native corporation Sealaska, is unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Because of the closed primary, those voting the GOP ballot will choose between Watson and Graham. Those voting the Democratic ballot will see only Kookesh's name.
The district is spread out, even more so than before due to the redistricting addition of the Prince William Sound community of Cordova, which makes travel a major campaign expense. Alaska Public Offices Commission reports show Kookesh has raised about $8,800 this year, plus $6,440 last year. Graham raised about $6,100 and Watson about $1,500 this year.
All the candidates have worked as commercial fishermen - Kookesh as a gillnetter, Graham as a gillnetter and seiner, and Watson as a power troller. And all cite the decline of Alaska's fisheries as a problem they'll address in the Legislature.
All support continued funding for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and improving transportation infrastructure as ways to combat competition from foreign farmed fish, which have taken over many markets once dominated by Alaska wild salmon.
"We need to get the word out about our product and get the fish off the boat and to the customer as fast as we can," Watson, who has run for the seat before, said from Craig.
Graham, in his first try for statewide office, wants to go a step further and try to pass a state law banning the import or sale of farmed salmon in Alaska.
"It's my understanding that some of the chemicals and some of the hormones fed to these fish are ... banned from use in the United States," Graham said from Cordova. "I've heard these fish come in with trace antibiotics in them. If you have trace antibiotics in your milk the milk would be dumped."
Kookesh said from Angoon that he supported a recent plan, rejected by the Knowles administration, that would have allowed Russian processing ships to purchase Southeast fish.
All said they want improvements to the region's marine highway system.
Kookesh said he was among the Democrats in the Legislature who forced the GOP majority to bail out the state ferry system earlier this year. Without the extra funding, the system would have had to cut service.
"We were able to show the majority members that 53 percent of the people who get on the ferry end up in Anchorage or Fairbanks," he said.
Kookesh said he also worked hard to find money to support the Inter-island Ferry Authority, a private nonprofit group running a new ferry between Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island. And he said he's trying to work out an extension of the IFA route to provide more service to the Annette Island community of Metlakatla.
Watson, who lives on Prince of Wales Island, said Kookesh "hasn't been a player" in development of the ferry authority, which has fought with the state Department of Transportation.
"Most of that work happened in our office here. We did it ourselves. I don't feel the state of Alaska was a great player," he said.
Graham said he's looking forward to construction and deployment of fast ferries backed by the Knowles administration but opposed by some members of his own party. Fast ferries wouldn't replace ocean-crossing, mainline ships, but should provide good shuttle service for inside waters, he said.
"I think the concept is good. If these things work out I think we've got a winner here," he said.
Watson and Graham called for additional road-building in the region to increase commerce. But none of the three candidates supports a highway connecting Juneau to the mainland road system. Watson said it's a local issue, and Kookesh and Graham were concerned about the cost and Skagway's and Haines' opposition.
All three candidates oppose the November ballot measure that would move legislative sessions to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough or Anchorage, calling it a waste of money or citing the damage it would do to Southeast's economy.
All support putting a rural priority subsistence constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot. Graham also wants to push for federal legislative changes to return all fishing and hunting management to the state, although he said that's not going to happen soon.
Filling Alaska's nearly billion-dollar gap between state revenues and expenses is a priority for all three. All spoke of the impacts of spending reductions on schools, road maintenance or other needed services. All opposed a statewide sales tax, saying it would take away one of local governments' main forms of raising revenues.
Graham and Watson said they would need more information before determining other details of a budget solution.
"About the only thing I can do is make a pledge right now to study it and work it out," Graham said, adding he would look cut cuts in the departments of Environmental Conservation and Natural Resources.
"Until you're sitting at the table and are seeing all the cards, it's real hard to say what you're going to do," Watson said.
But Kookesh said a workable plan already has been proposed - the combination of a complicated income tax, an increased alcohol tax and use of some earnings of the permanent fund, which passed the House last year but not the Senate. Kookesh said the plan, while not perfect, is fair.
"Everybody has to pay a little bit or give a little bit," he said.
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