Democrats target their own in state House primary, backing Nageak challenger

Dean Westlake is challenging Barrow Rep. Bennie Nageak in the Democratic primary; in 2014, Westlake lost the race by 131 votes. Photo: Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk
Dean Westlake is challenging Barrow Rep. Bennie Nageak in the Democratic primary; in 2014, Westlake lost the race by 131 votes. Photo: Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk

Democrats are hoping to take control of the state House this year. To achieve that, they’re gunning for two lawmakers who run as Democrats but largely vote with the Republicans.

One is Rep. Bennie Nageak, D-Barrow, who represents House District 40, which stretches from Kotzebue to Kaktovik.

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Piles of shoes at the entrance to a Democratic fundraiser for Dean Westlake and Zach Fansler, at the home of oil and gas attorney Robin Brena. The fundraiser was co-hosted by nine House Democrats and former U.S. Senator Mark Begich, among other. Photo: Rachel Waldholz/Alaska's Energy Desk
Piles of shoes at the entrance to a Democratic fundraiser for Dean Westlake and Zach Fansler, at the home of oil and gas attorney Robin Brena. The fundraiser was co-hosted by nine House Democrats and former U.S. Senator Mark Begich, among others. Photo: Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk

In early August, a who’s who of Alaska Democrats gathered at the home of oil and gas attorney Robin Brena for a fundraiser. Shoes were piled by the door as guests mingled in their socks with former U.S. Senator Mark Begich, among others, eating hors d’oeuvres and taking in the view.

That show of Democratic solidarity and support? It was aimed at unseating two of their own: incumbent state lawmakers Bob Herron of Bethel and Benjamin Nageak of Barrow.

Both lawmakers caucus with the Republican majority in the state legislature, and their colleagues, it’s clear, are fed up.

“I mean, we had Rep. Pruitt say that one of the best Republican members that they have is Ben Nageak,” said House minority leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, citing Anchorage Republican Lance Pruitt. Tuck was one of nine House Democrats who co-hosted the fundraiser. “I just want to have more Democrats, more true Democrats, in the state House.”

Democrats turned out to support Dean Westlake and Zach Fansler, who are challenging incumbent Reps. Bob Herron of Bethel and Bennie Nageak of Barrow. Photo: Rachel Waldholz/Alaska's Energy Desk
Democrats turned out to support Dean Westlake and Zach Fansler, who are challenging incumbent Reps. Bob Herron of Bethel and Bennie Nageak of Barrow. Photo: Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk

Nageak’s challenger, Dean Westlake of Kotzebue, is director of village economic development for NANA, the regional Native corporation for Northwest Alaska. He said he’s running to make sure rural Alaska has a voice in the capital.

“There are a lot of us dissatisfied because the values that we have are not the ones that we see down in Juneau,” he said in an interview.

Westlake ran against Nageak two years ago, losing by just 131 votes.  This time, running with the explicit – and financial – backing of the state Democratic Party, he has high hopes.

Westlake’s campaign said the fundraiser brought in $6235. (Zach Fansler, who is challenging Herron in House District 38, also raised $5900 at the event.) As of Aug. 9, Westlake’s campaign had brought in a total of $34,864.48, compared with $11,190.11 for Nageak.

If elected, Westlake said, he’d prioritize rural education and community revenue sharing; and he proposed working harder to bring federal money into Alaska villages at a time when state funding for things like water and sewer projects is disappearing.

“One of our values is you always take care of the least of us, and as a representative, that’s what I’d have to do,” Westlake said. “Whoever takes this job, you absolutely have to work with whoever is out there, regardless of party affiliation.”

Rep. Benjamin Nageak, D-Bethel, during debate on the creation of Indigenous Peoples Day, April 1, 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
Rep. Benjamin Nageak, D-Bethel, during debate on the creation of Indigenous Peoples Day, April 1, 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

But the man he’s challenging says the Arctic already has a strong voice in Juneau – his.

“As you probably know, I am a voice that won’t be stopped,” Nageak said in an interview. “And they’re trying to stop me from doing the work I’ve done for the past forty years.”

Nageak, a former North Slope Borough mayor and assembly member, is running for his third term in the state House. He’s co-chair of the House Resources Committee, and he’s known in Juneau for passionate floor speeches, often in defense of resource development and its importance to North Slope communities. In the fight over oil taxes this year, his committee rolled back Governor Bill Walker’s proposal to severely limit tax credits for oil companies.

Nageak is unapologetic about his support for the industry.

“99 percent of the…tax revenues that we get, not only here in the North Slope Borough, but in the state, comes from oil and gas taxes – period.” he said. “So if anything happens to the industry, where are we going to get the money to run the whole state?”

It’s a slight exaggeration: in the years before oil prices fell, up to 90 percent of state general fund spending came from oil revenue

Nageak said he’s disappointed the legislature couldn’t come up with a long-term budget solution this session — and he blamed the gridlock, at least in part, on minority Democrats. But, he said, he’d happily join a Democratic-led majority, if one materializes.

“Who wouldn’t?” he said with a laugh.

The point, he said, is to be in the majority. He pointed to a provision he passed in 2014 which lifted the cap on how much oil revenue the North Slope Borough could devote to government operations — a longtime goal for the region, which he said he couldn’t have achieved in the minority.

One of Nageak’s allies in that fight? Then-Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower, who has since been recalled over the misuse of public money. Nageak defended her during the recall effort this spring, an issue that might come up with Barrow voters.

With no Republican running in House District 40, the race will be decided in the primary on Aug. 16