Juneau-Douglas High School students got a first-hand civics lesson Monday morning at a question-and-answer forum with local legislative candidates.
Scattered throughout the high school library, separate venues for each race - House District 3, House District 4 and Senate District B, plus the governor's race - provided an intimate setting for students to get to know the candidates and their positions.
"I've been pretty impressed with the way all the candidates have related to the students," said Gary Lehnhart, a government teacher at JDHS who assigned his students to write down why each candidate is running, who they would choose and why.
Although some students sat staring into space waiting for the bell to ring, others were attentive and engaged the candidates with questions that concern young people.
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Kyle Thibodeau, 18, a senior, said one of his main concerns for future JDHS students is whether a new high school in the Mendenhall Valley would dilute the talent pool for high school athletes in Juneau.
As the moderator for the forum for House District 3 candidates Mike Race, a Republican, and Beth Kerttula, a Democrat, Thibodeau said he learned the difference between the majority and the minority parties in the Legislature and how that affects a lawmaker's vote on an issue.
Throughout the election season Race has said he would be more effective for Juneau as a member of the Republican majority. Kerttula, the incumbent, has said she's worked across party lines to get things done as a member of the minority.
With 16 years of seniority between herself and Sen. Kim Elton, Kerttula said their experience would serve their constituents well.
"I didn't realize what a big deal it is, I guess," Thibodeau said.
He said while parties may help guide a person on how they will vote, the decision should come from looking at each candidate as individuals and not as members of a certain party.
Lou Taylor, 17, another senior, voiced her opinions on the legislative move initiative and the proposed construction of a road to Skagway.
It's selfish to keep the capital in Juneau and away from the rest of the state, but it's the only way Southeast will maintain any political control, Taylor said.
On the issue of the road she said: "I think it's inevitable, but I don't really like it."
Democrat Tim Grussendorf, a candidate for House District 4, told students the signature-gathering process for certifying a statewide ballot initiative needs to change to prevent future capital-move efforts.
The initiative process now makes it too easy for areas such as Anchorage or the Mat-Su to get a ballot initiative certified without any input from the rest of the state, Grussendorf said.
Bruce Weyhrauch, Grussendorf's Republican opponent, warned students a capital move would result in the loss of one third of Juneau's work force and weaken Juneau's representation in the Legislature.
When asked if he supported random drug testing, Weyhrauch said he does not.
"Students understand hypocrisy better than anything," Weyhrauch said. "Unless there is reasonable probable cause, then you're scrutinizing everyone equally."
He said if students are tested, adults should be held to the same standard.
Republican Senate candidate Cathy Muñoz, who was asked the same question in a different forum, agreed.
"I'm not in favor of random drug testing," Muñoz said. "I think if you're a participant in sports, I think it's appropriate to sign a contract, and I think certain expectations should be in play, and if you break the contract there's consequences, but I'm not in favor of random drug testing."
On the issue of abortion, Muñoz said she supports a woman's right to choose, but added that she's against public funding of abortions outside of situations of rape, incest or when the mother's health is at risk.
Sen. Kim Elton, the Democratic incumbent, said he supports choice without reservation.
"I'm pro-choice too but I'm all the way pro-choice," Elton said, adding the decision to have an abortion should be made by the woman and her doctor, not the Legislature.
Elton said he also opposes parental consent and judicial bypass laws for minors seeking an abortion.
For some students it was their first experience meeting and talking to candidates, but Chad Guertin, 16, a junior, has been working on Kerttula's campaign and polling his fellow classmates on the issues.
In a poll of about 60 to 70 students in two classes at JDHS, Guertin said only one supported moving the Legislature out of Juneau and most favored opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration.
Likewise, most favored building a road out of Juneau.
Guertin said he would like to see a road built, adding that "politicians up north" are using the issue as an excuse for moving the Legislature.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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