Anchorage candidates vie for progressive bona fides ahead of primary

As Alaska’s primary elections get closer, there are a handful of contests that will likely be decided in August, far ahead of the November general election.

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Though there’s a vigorous partisan fight for control of the house majority playing out in a handful of districts, candidates in one of the state’s most liberal corners are trying to convince voters they’re the most progressive choice in a solidly Democratic part of town.

District 20 is what you might call Anchorage’s historic area, encompassing downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.  For 16 years it’s been represented by Democrat Les Gara, who decided not to seek another term. The race to replace him has gotten highly competitive, flooded with tens of thousands of dollars ahead of the primary and campaign signs on what seems like every other lawn. Gara’s chosen successor is union organizer and former Alaska Democratic Party communications director Zack Fields.

“I’ve worked both in activism and in government and I think that combination of having an insider’s view of public policy but also an activist’s ethos of always pushing for positive change is a good combination for this district,” Fields said in an interview this week.

An Alaska resident for six years, Fields has racked up the most high profile endorsements from established Democrats, and as of late July raised almost $35,000 from hundreds of individual donors and union groups. Fields’s platform is focused on environmental conservation, increased spending on education, law enforcement and infrastructure. To pay for those things, he wants to increase taxes.

“In order of preference, I support higher taxes on oil production, I also support a progressively structured income tax, and I would consider supporting a sales tax if it had protections against regressivity to make sure it doesn’t fall hard on working families,” Fields said.

While a push for more taxes would be a deal-breaker for voters in many conservative-leaning parts of Anchorage, in the District 20 primary its relatively uncontroversial. The area is so packed with registered Democrats that the primary is all but certain to determine who will represent the district. And that has candidates competing to establish their progressive bona fides to voters.

Former prosecutor and avowed policy wonk Cliff Groh is making that case through his decades of experience working on state economic policy.

“I am by far the most knowledgeable candidate about our fiscal situation in this race,” Groh said.

Groh was born in the district, and is a product of Anchorage public schools. As a legislative staffer in the 80s he helped write the bill establishing the Permanent Fund Dividend. And for the last four years, Groh has traveled the state trying to get residents engaged with the dire budget situation caused by the oil price decline. He too wants a Legislature that boosts funding for criminal prosecutors, state troopers and education, paid for by restoring the income tax the state had in place until 1980.

“The days of big easy oil money are over for Alaska,” Groh said. “Alaska needs to have the maturity to understand that our state needs to have more traditional and conventional ways of financing public services.”

Groh has the most detailed policy proposals of all three candidates, ranging from healthcare price transparency to suggestions for tax credits to boost economic development.

Though Groh’s campaign has technically raised the most money, the majority of it, more than $47,000, was self-financed.

Candidate Elias Rojas has also put several thousand dollars of his own money into his campaign. The business owner and community organizer has a significant number of individual donations from out of state as well, something he attributes to his professional background working in California and New York prior to moving to Alaska almost 12 years ago.

“Top of mind to most folks is really trying to figure out how to implement a comprehensive fiscal plan,” Rojas said of what he’s hearing from people in the district as he campaigns. “At the same time trying to make sure that our priorities are addressed in that fiscal plan. Things like reducing crime, making sure our schools are good schools and a strong university system.”

Rojas hesitates to give details about specific components of a fiscal plan, saying it will require compromise from everyone involved, but that in his mind everything should be on the table as far as new revenue options.

Rojas has endorsements from a lot of local Anchorage politicians and community activists, including several sitting Assembly members. He built a strong network in the city through his past efforts pushing forward equal rights measures in Anchorage, something he says he would continue pursuing through a state-wide anti-discrimination policy.

“I have the ability to coalition-build when I get to Juneau, and I’ve had that experience working on LGBT issues. I’ve needed it to work across the aisle, and feel that that’s a strength I have that Juneau needs right now,” Rojas added.

The winner of the August 21st Democratic primary will appear on the November ballot against Republican Ceezar Martinson.