Senate F Race Pits Valley Educator Against Seasoned Legislator

Republican incumbent Bill Stoltze (left) and Democratic challenger Patricia Chesbro (left). (Photos by Josh Edge/APRN)
Republican incumbent Bill Stoltze (left) and Democratic challenger Patricia Chesbro (left). (Photos by Josh Edge/APRN)

A new District – Senate F – was created with last year’s state redistricting plan, and now two candidates with solid ties to the the area want to represent it in Juneau. Educator Pat Chesbro, a Democrat, is challenging long – time House Republican representative Bill Stoltze for the seat.

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Senate F is regarded as the gateway between the Matanuska Susitna Borough and the easternmost Anchorage suburbs. It stretches from Palmer, and the outskirts of Wasilla to Chugiak. Republican Bill Stoltze has served some outlying Palmer voting precincts – Lazy Mountain and Springer Loop – for many terms in the state House.

Earlier this year, Stoltze chose a downtown Palmer location to announce his decision not to seek another House term in order to run for the new Senate seat.

“I am going to ask your permisstion” Stoltze told an audience of seniors, ” and ask to become your new state senator.”

But the Democrats have positioned a strong challenger. Pat Chesbro has served the area for years, too. Chesbro was a Palmer teacher and school principal for 25 years, did a stint as superintendent of the Mat Su Borough School District, taught at UAA, and administered a statewide federal education grant.

“You know, I have experience in institutions too, and I think at some point in time, unless you shift your focus a little bit, sometimes you loose perspective. And as I read about and learn about what’s happening in the legislature, I just became more convinced that people needed a viable choice.” Chesbro said.

Chesbro has one legislative run behind her.. she ran against Stoltze in 2008.

Stoltze, first elected in 2002, has co-chaired the House Finance committee from 2008 until this year, before that, he was vice chair of House Finance. He says next session, legislators will have to make some tough budget decisions — many of them regarding social services and state pension obligations.

“Fiscal analysts have warned us about another 250 to 300 million dollars in increased pension obligation costs that are going to be before us, notwithstanding the three million dollars forward funding of that to help pay down that debt. The issue of , well the best way to control the spiral of that cost, and the three biggest drivers are Medicaid and welfare increases, and just in FY 06 I think, it was 360 or 380 million dollars. Now it’s over 700 million dollars.”

Chesbro says UAA data indicates state spending is a “billion dollars more than conditions allow”, and one place to look for cuts would be proposed capital projects.

“I think we’ve begun to invest in too many projects at this point, especially, you know, as we continue to talk about where, well where’s the money going and where’s the money coming from to support all of these things. I also think people are underestimating.. for example, let’s take the bridge.. I think people are underestimating the amount of infrastructure development that needs to happen on the Mat Su side, after that bridge is done. Who’s going to pay for that?”

‘That bridge’ is the Knik Arm Crossing, and it gets Stoltze’s support.

“I’m in support of it with a caution of the cost. But I think the opportunities that it represents are pretty big. In conjunction with the gasline development and the opportunity to create a real foundational economic base in the Valley. Right now is a great opportunity .. we have a deeper port than Anchorage does, it’s a ready made industrial port,” he said.

They differ on the Susitna -Watana dam too. Stoltz supports the hydro project, Chesbro says the dam benefits only the Railbelt, and she would favor small, localized renewable projects to benefit bush communities.

The two candidates spar on educational issues, as well.

“I believe that we have given education a short shrift in last year’s, not just in funding but sort of our attitude toward our educators and education. And I think that that needs to shift, ” Chesbro says. Chesbro supports state funding for preschools and funding a year in advance for school districts.

Stoltze points to population growth in the Mat Su, and the current range of educational choices there. He says

“Our delegation and myself as well are going to work on making sure that they have places to put their kids. And that’s just not our brick and mortar, but that’s opportunities for home school, charter school, and looking at the customer side of the counter of an education. Making sure that we have educational opportunities that are relevant and accountable to for what’s best for our students. The constituency for the schools shouldn’t be a teachers union, it shouldn’t be employees, it should be the parent’s and their children.”

Both candidates  have reservations about marijuana. Chesbro supports a minimum wage hike, Stoltze says he’s not sure about that.  And both have some innovative ideas.

Chesbro says she’d like the state to invest 25 million dollars in an Angel Fund to help local entrepreneurs.

“I think we can turn around some of these fiscal issues we have. I think we can invest in new and innovative industries in Alaska, so that people can have good jobs. Oil and gas have been really important in our lives, and will continue to be, but its not the only thing that we can do. I am optimistic that we can make it better by tapping and investing in Alaskans. ”

Stoltze says he’d like to continue work to support an elected state Attorney General’s office. He says an elected AG would be more responsive to criminal issues. Election day is November 4.