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Democrats face off for lieutenant governor

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2010

With strongly differing views on natural gas pipeline plans from the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor, and from the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, the Democratic candidates for the state's second highest office are struggling to take any views at all.

The best known candidate in the race is likely Diane Benson, who has three times before run statewide campaigns, including polling about 40 percent of the vote against longtime Republican U.S. Representative Don Young in 2006.

Challenging Benson for the nomination are Lynette Moreno-Hinz and J.J. "Jack" Powers.

Benson offers lukewarm support for the state's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act pipeline plan, which for the last three years has been working toward a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permit which would allow the pipeline to be built.

"I think there is some value in it," Benson said. "There's also merit to some of the objections."

Moreno-Hinz said she was opposed to AGIA, but acknowledged she didn't know much about it, including what route its pipeline might take.

Powers declined to be interviewed, but his campaign website's "What I Stand For" section on energy offers little clue to his position on the pipeline or other oil and natural gas issues.

Alaska's lieutenant governor has few official duties, with the largest being overseeing the Division of Elections, which is managed by professional elections staff.

As was recently highlighted with the ascendancy of Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell to the governorship following Sarah Palin's resignation, the lieutenant governor also has to be prepared to take over the state's top executive position as well. Parnell replacing Palin was the second time in the state's 50-year history that a lieutenant governor became governor.

As lieutenant governor, Parnell backed Palin's AGIA effort, and has continued to try to get the pipeline permits as governor.

With little to do for the lieutenant governor, most of the candidates are talking about what they'd do as governor, and issues they'd advocate from the state's No. 2 office, even if they don't directly relate to the job of lieutenant governor.

Benson said the state is so young that the role of lieutenant governor is still being defined, and an active lieutenant governor can play an important role in the state.

"I think Fran Ulmer did it well and I think people did notice, and so did Red Boucher," she said. "Others, you can hardly remember who they were because they didn't do as much."

Benson said she'd use the office to advocate for issues close to her heart, including the needs of villages, finding ways to reduce child and sexual abuse and caring for veterans.

Benson, who grew up in several Alaska cities, including around Southeast Alaska and in Fairbanks, now lives in Anchorage. She's of Tlingit heritage, and said her Native community connections will help her use the state's second-highest office to highlight issues that need to be addressed.

And her son, an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs to a blast from an improvised explosive device, helps her keep in mind the needs of Alaska's veterans, she said.

Moreno-Hinz, also with Tlingit heritage, said her big issue is subsistence and Native rights. "We've made progress, but not enough," she said.

She was born in Southeast, but moved to Anchorage as a child.

In her regular job as an Anchorage cab driver, Moreno-Hinz said she gets to meet many Bush residents, both Native and non-Native, which she said gives her an understanding of rural life that none of the candidates for governor have.

As lieutenant governor, Moreno-Hinz said she'd make sure the governor didn't forget about the challenges facing rural residents trying to feed their families and heat their homes.

Moreno-Hinz said "I'm a life-long Democrat," and then makes it clear that statement is meant to be a dig at Benson, who once ran for governor as a member of the Green Party.

Powers also calls himself a life-long Democrat, but on his website raises questions himself about his political allegiance by saying he considered running as a Republican instead. It also lists Republicans he's voted for, including Frank Murkowski and Tom Fink.

And he further clouds the issue by listing his spare time hobbies: Listening to local right-wing talk radio host Dan Fagan and watching Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.

Powers moved to Alaska in 1962, when he was stationed in Anchorage by the U.S. Army, and stayed after he was discharged.

He declined to be interviewed for this story, despite repeated contacts with his campaign staff over several days. Once, Powers returned a call, saying "I didn't want you to think I was avoiding you," but declined to take questions. A promised follow-up call never came.

Powers has more campaign money that either Benson or the barely funded Moreno-Hinz, but Benson points out that she's raised more money from more Alaskans than has Powers. He, however, was able to put hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into the race.

Among Moreno-Hinz campaign contributors, is, surprisingly, Powers. She was the first to file to run in the race, and a Powers contribution of $500 was one of the first she received.

"He's a very nice gentleman," she said of Powers.

Just before the filing deadline, Powers decided to jump into the race himself, turning it into a three-way race.

•Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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