The primary election for state Senate District E is between two candidates involved in a messy appointment process earlier this year.
Now, Republican voters from the northern section of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and a stretch from Delta Junction and Valdez must decide between borough Assemblyman Randall Kowalke and Air Force veteran pilot Mike Shower, who currently holds the seat.
The contest has its roots back about six months ago, when Gov. Bill Walker first tried to appoint Kowalke to the seat vacated by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, who resigned to focus on his gubernatorial campaign.
Kowalke was not on the list of recommended appointees that district republicans sent Walker, and members of the GOP Senate majority rejected him.
“I was disappointed,” Kowalke said. “I guess when the governor calls you up and ends the phone conversation with, ‘Hope to be working with you soon, Senator,” you think, ‘OK, well, this worked out,’ and then of course it all blew up.”
Gov. Walker reportedly passed over a sitting representative from the Valley who was on the shortlist after he hung an inappropriate poster outside his office in the capital. After Kowalke’s rejection, the governor appointed an extreme conservative on the list, only to have that potential appointee withdraw once Facebook posts surfaced in which he compared women to dogs and appeared promote violence toward abortion providers.
Then, in swooped Mike Shower, the outsider with a clean but very thin political record and a Libertarian streak, who had only changed his party affiliation from “undeclared” to Republican a short time before he was appointed.
“The governor probably regrets appointing me, and the Senate might regret confirming me but, you know, you let a guy in the front door that can think fast on his feet, collect the sum weight of information,” Shower said. “But I have a rebel streak in me. It is, ‘Don’t tell me what I’m going to do,’ and, ‘I’m not going to play your game, especially if I don’t think it’s right.'”
Both Shower and Kowalke said they support repealing controversial crime legislation known as SB91 and want an amendment to the state constitution that would protect the Permanent Fund Dividend.
But — like Dunleavy, who walked away from the Senate majority caucus over what he said was a bloated budget — Shower decided not to caucus with the Republican majority either.
Kowalke, on the other hand, intends to join the caucus. He said he wants a seat at the table.
“We need to be developing that budget, rather than let other people drive our fate,” Kowalke said. “I’m not second-guessing what Mike Dunleavy did at the time he did, but I don’t see my doing a service to this district if I plan to spend the next four years in the broom closet.”
Kowalke also said he doesn’t consider himself a politician and repeats that he’s only been a borough assemblyman for “a thousand days,” like that limited amount of time working in government can only be a good thing.
At the same time, Kowalke questions Shower’s lack of political experience.
“Do I think he deserves the Senate seat? No. I think he literally parachuted in, had no record on much of anything, politically, and boom, he’s the senator,” Kowalke said.
Kowalke touts his accomplishments on the Assembly, things like getting a more-reliable school-funding formula and working to cap property taxes.
Kowalke wants the state to do more to foster full staffing of the Alaska State Troopers, a problem felt acutely in his Assembly district. He proposes the state help pay off student loans for criminal justice graduates who want to become troopers.
Kowalke wants to”right-size” government. He said a hard spending limit should only come after deeper analysis of state programs and their costs, including guaranteed increases in union contracts.
According to Shower, that’s one of the biggest differences between them.
“If you don’t come in with something that constrains government growth and just does what Randall is suggesting, which is, ‘Well, you know, we right-size,’ what does ‘right-size mean? Another billion (dollar) increase? That’s a very broad term to me,” Shower said. “We already went up half a billion dollars this year. Can you afford to go up another half a billion when you’re $2 billion short?”
Shower said the other big difference between the two of them is the caucus question. He sees it as unethical to essentially trade votes for influence.
“The caucus stands against repeal and replace of SB 91, protecting the Permanent Fund in the constitution, it stands against any kind of balanced budget act,” Shower said. “So if Randall says, ‘I support those things,’ but he also says he’s going to join the caucus, then clearly he doesn’t understand how that works.”
There may be an even more practical difference between the two candidates: Shower says he doesn’t plan to quit his job as a pilot for FedEx and will have to use extended leave time to attend legislative sessions. As a retiree, Kowalke has fewer work responsibilities.
Unless Tuesday’s primary for District E is too close to call, it will be clear who Republican voters in the district want squaring off with Susan Kay, the lone Democrat filed for the November general election.