Battle turns bitter for Senate seat

Posted: Thursday, October 26, 2000

Republican incumbent Robin Taylor and Democratic challenger Greg Middag agree that the main issue in their Senate campaign in southern Southeast is Taylor's effectiveness in the Legislature.

"I see him as just not being effective," said Middag, 51, a Ketchikan teacher and second-time candidate. "His own majority in the Legislature doesn't work well with him any longer."

"I think the big question is really one of effectiveness in Juneau," Taylor said. The 16-year legislative veteran from Wrangell said he passed more bills seven than any other lawmaker last session. He pointed in particular to legislation granting land to the University of Alaska which triggered a legal dispute with the Knowles administration and a bill targeting the "e-theft" of "digital identities."

Taylor, a former gubernatorial candidate who has been a polarizing figure statewide and in his district, simply is too combative, Middag said. "Robin keeps telling people (about) who has done things he doesn't like. ... Now is not the time to fight. Now is the time to find solutions for problems."

But Taylor makes no apologies for his style.

"There's no question that I'm a strong voice in the Legislature when it comes to protecting the interests of my district. I won't roll over for the Railbelt community," he said. "We've been under attack and siege by the Democratic administration in Washington, D.C., and we've had no help from the Democratic administration in Juneau."

If he's harsh at times, it's because government policies "can destroy families and lives," Taylor said. While Middag has a guaranteed paycheck as a teacher, many other people in the district are struggling to make a living with the resource-management decisions that are being imposed on them, he said.

Taylor said his incumbency is particularly important because of the new legislative district lines that will be drawn next year to reflect the Census. Southeast will lose the "Iceworm" House district that includes three dozen scattered communities from Yakutat to Prince of Wales Island, and with it the representation of a state senator, he said.

Meanwhile, with the retirement of former House Speaker Ben Grussendorf of Sitka this year, there will be a freshman representative for Wrangell, Sitka and Petersburg, Taylor noted. Given all that, it would be "tragic" to have a freshman senator, he said. He wants to continue work on transportation improvements and an electrical intertie that together could increase the chances for a "sustainable economy" in the district.

But Middag, who has pledged to serve only two terms in the Senate, said long-term incumbency is a drawback. "I think over time it's very difficult for people to hang on to why they sought public office in the first place."

Middag sees Taylor as being particularly out of touch in voting against a constitutional amendment establishing a rural priority for subsistence hunting and fishing. The Senate's failure to provide the necessary two-thirds vote last year to put the measure on the ballot triggered federal management of subsistence. Taylor rejected the advice of the all-Republican congressional delegation by voting no, and thus "opened the door" for the feds, Middag said.

But Taylor said he "swore an oath to uphold that Constitution."

Middag also hits Taylor on education funding, saying that over a decade state support for the Wrangell district, among others, has declined by a third in inflation-adjusted dollars.

"What a phony one that is," Taylor responded. He said he sponsored legislation that actually increased per capita funding for rural districts, some of which got eaten up by higher teacher salaries. That makes Middag "hypocritical," because he was part of a teachers' strike at the time, Taylor said. "His response was to go and try to get a piece of it."

The candidates also have had a dust-up over alcohol laws. Middag said it shouldn't have taken recent federal legislation to pressure states into adopting a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving, and he accused Taylor of opposing it.

"Sen. Taylor stuffed that bill in his Judiciary Committee for six years," Middag said.

Taylor, a former judge who says he handed out stiff sentences for first-time drunken-driving offenders, said "it's very offensive to me to suggest I'm soft" on the issue. Law enforcement officials testified they wouldn't make additional arrests with 0.08 rather than 0.10, and the bill didn't have the votes, he said. Nonetheless, he said he would vote for it next session, now federal highway funds are at stake.

Taylor and Middag also differ on at least one of two wildlife measures that will appear on the ballot. Taylor supports a constitutional amendment to ban citizen initiatives on wildlife management and opposes reinstatement of a sweeping ban on land-and-shoot wolf hunting because he believes Alaskans are being manipulated by Outside animal rights activists. Middag said he's not sure about land-and-shoot but said: "I think we need to be careful about amending the Constitution."

Middag, who got 44 percent of the vote against Taylor in 1996, said polling shows him slightly ahead this time, but Taylor scoffed at that. Including an expensive Republican primary contest, Taylor had raised $101,667 as of Oct. 6, and had $24,386 in cash on-hand. Middag is spending less than he did in 1996, raising $27,448 as of Oct. 9, and retaining $6,234.

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