Senate District J, which represents West Anchorage and Sand Lake, is one of the most contentious races in the upcoming election. Because of redistricting, the Spenard part of the district shrunk while the Sand Lake and Jewell Lake neighborhoods were added. Republican Businessman Bob Bell is challenging longtime Democratic Senator Hollis French for the seat.
Hollis French has been a fixture in Juneau for a decade. But he says there a lot more work for him to do, and if voters send him back to Juneau, he will focus on two issues, energy and education.
“My energy plan has three components — 1) maintain a strong north slope oil industry. Number 2) Keep a stable supply of gas coming to our homes from Cook inlet. Number 3) For the long term invest in renewable energy projects,” French said.
French, who came to Alaska to work on a Cook Inlet oil rig, then alternated working on the North Slope while finishing his college degree, eventually earned a law degree from Cornell and became a prosecuting attorney in Anchorage. He says Alaska’s education system needs improvement – especially pre-kindergarten programs, which he’s had a chance to push for as a member of the education committee. French helped found the Senate bi-partisan coalition, and currently chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bob Bell has an engineering degree and is a Vietnam veteran. He founded an engineering and surveying firm, F. Robert Bell & Associates, and he served on the Anchorage Assembly for six years – from 1993-1999. He says his experience running a business and working in municipal politics has prepared him to serve in the legislature.
“I’ve always been of the philosophy that somebody should succeed at what they do before they run for office. I think I fit that category now. I’ve run a business here in Anchorage for 38 years. We’ve employed up to 200 employees. I’ve handed paychecks to over a thousand Alaskans,” Bell said.
Bell says the business world has taught him to negotiate. And that will be useful in dealing with oil companies, government employees and the public. Bell does not support the bi-partisan coalition, which he says takes compromise too far and puts the legislature in gridlock on controversial issues such as coastal zone management, Denali Kid Care and oil tax reform.
“That Coalition is weaker. And therefore anybody that doesn’t like something, a very few senators, can kill it. And what happened was significant issues that should have come before the senate, didn’t,” Bell said.
Bell says there are other ways to work across party lines. French is 100-percent behind the Senate bi-partisan coalition, which he helped to set up in 2006. He says when legislators founded the coalition they knew would have to tackle things that they could agree on.
“Like education, like savings, like building Alaska. And we have to set aside the extreme agenda’s of each party. Frankly, my constituents don’t want me to go down there and work solely as a democrat. They send me down there to work across party lines and get things done. And I think we’ve been very successful,” French said.
French is not a fan of Governor Sean Parnell’s Oil Tax plan. But supports targeted tax cuts to encourage new development on the North Slope. Bell admits Parnell’s plan was not perfect, but believes it is a good starting point. You can’t talk about this race without talking about the Alaska Public Offices Commission, or APOC. In October, APOC fined Bell $390 for violating public official financial disclosure reporting law. One of the clients Bell did not originally disclose was BP, which paid his company more than a million dollars in 2011. Bell says it was just a misunderstanding.
“I didn’t drag my feet to disclose my clients. When we called APOC when we filed they said I didn’t need to give them the list because I didn’t own the company any more. So we didn’t. They called us back in and said the rules changed, so now you do and we immediately gave them the list,” Bell said.
Recently French had his own brush with APOC. A republican activist filed a complaint against him saying he was collaborating with the group, “Putting Alaskans First Committee” and requested an expedited hearing. According to documents, the expedited hearing was denied because “based on the evidence presented, there was not reasonable cause to believe that a violation of the campaign finance laws had occurred or will occur.” French calls the accusation a political stunt. As of filing this story, French had raised about $226,000 and had around $30,000 in his campaign account. Bell had raised about $150,000 and had close to $20,000 left spend before election day.
Both candidates have benefited from interest group ad campaigns.