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By ZACHARY HALASCHAK
For the Daily News
Editor’s Note: Three Ketchikan-based candidates are running for election to the Alaska House District 36 seat. One candidate is two-term incumbent independent Rep. Dan Ortiz, who will be on the general election ballot on Nov. 6. Ortiz will face Democratic challenger Ghert Abbott, who’s the sole candidate for HD 36 in the Alaska Democratic Party primary election on Aug. 21, and Republican challenger Trevor Shaw, who’s the only candidate for HD36 in the Alaska Republican Party primary election, also on Aug. 21. Each candidate spoke with reporter Zachary Halaschak, whose profile of Dan Ortiz is included here. Those of Trevor Shaw and Ghert Abbott were published on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.
Dan Ortiz, Ketchikan’s incumbent candidate for District 36’s seat in the Alaska House of Representatives, says that he has been knocking on doors and touting his “independent” voting record in a bid to retain his seat in the Legislature come November.
Ortiz is not affiliated with any political party, and told the Daily News in a July 24 interview that that’s just the way he likes it.
“I’m independent, I’m truly independent,” he said. “I feel like I work for the best interest of District 36 and the state overall and I don’t concern myself with political parties or the concerns of political parties.”
Ortiz has two competitors in the race. To his right is current Ketchikan School Board President Trevor Shaw, who is running as a Republican. And to Ortiz’ left is Ghert Abbott, a local historian who is running as Democrat.
Ortiz told the Daily News that one of the things that he prides himself on is his ability to toe that middle line and listen to constituents of all backgrounds and political persuasions.
“I try to always listen first and hear the concern of the constituent when they contact me and then I try to always make sure and follow up and respond,” he said.
Ortiz said that he is “truly trying to live up to that idea of government of the people by the people.”
When asked about the advantages of not being affiliated, he noted his ability to compromise and work with others in the Legislature.
“In terms of the advantages that it brings, it truly does allow me to work with both sides. I try to vote on every issue as to how it will affect the state and how it will affect my local District 36,” Ortiz said. “If that vote ends up being more with a majority of Republicans than so be it, and if that vote ends up being more with a majority of the Democrats than so be it. It doesn’t really matter to me, it’s just what’s in the best interest of District 36.”
Ortiz said a major disadvantage of running unaffiliated is that there is no built- in mechanism of funding or inherent support from a political party.
Although, according to the most recent public filing, Ortiz is leading his competitors in funding, bringing in $14,163, according to the latest report.
“I’m seeing a lot of continued support from citizens who have been with me from the beginning and (am) finding new sources of support, as well,” he said. “I feel like (fundraising) is going well.”
Ortiz said his past elections have been largely predicated on his door-to-door style of campaigning.
When asked what he has been hearing the most this time around, Ortiz said the state’s fiscal situation, “whether that manifests itself in a question about the (Alaska) Permanent Fund dividend, or the permanent fund itself — two separate things — or whether it manifests itself in questions about other sources of revenue.
“I hear a lot of support in my district for looking again at oil tax revenue as a source of new revenue, perhaps looking at reducing some of the per-barrel credits that (are) currently in the formula right now,” he said.
“There’s concern about — everyone wants to know what’s going to happen with the PFD,” Ortiz added. “And I’m very much concerned about that, I personally am for constitutionalizing the PFD into the constitution because it’s not there right now.”
When asked about his vote in favor of Senate Bill 26, which created a percent-of-market-value draw on the fund’s earnings, Ortiz said he did what he thought was best for the district and the state; although both of his competitors said they would not have voted for the measure.
“For me it was part of my overall, and the caucus’s overall, fiscal plan,” Ortiz said. “In 2017 we did send over a complete fiscal package that balanced the budget and part of that fiscal package was what’s now SB 26.”
“In the first couple of years of SB 26 the percentage of draw is 5.25 percent — it’s a little bit higher than I would have liked to have seen — but it still falls within the realm of recommended draw levels from the Permanent Fund Division itself,” he continued.
Ortiz said he is running largely on his tenure in the Legislature. When asked what he is most proud of during his time serving as District 36’s representative, Ortiz mentioned contributions to fishing, education and the welfare of senior citizens in the state.
“Specifically, I think you’ll see consistent support both in votes as well as in legislative activity — as well as everything I’ve done in relationship to the Legislature,” he said. “I think you’ll see a lot of support there for the fishing industry and you’ll see a lot of support there for education and you’ll see a lot of support there for our seniors.
“Those are the three things I try to remember first and foremost as I approach any session or legislative year,” he added.
Ortiz, who is a former teacher at Ketchikan High School, said that more could be done at the state level to improve education in Alaska. He pointed out the need for retention and recruitment of high-quality educators.
He said there is a “big annual turnover rate” for teachers, and that it continues to be a problem, especially in rural areas of Alaska.
“I think one of the key things, has always been and will continue to be, how to keep experienced, well-trained teachers in the classroom in the state of Alaska, in the communities where they're currently working.”
Ortiz spoke about improving benefits for educators in Alaska, including retirement. He said those benefits have been pared down over the past few years and might be impacting teacher retention and turnover.
“Being a former teacher obviously it’s natural for me to (support education), but at the same time it’s also supported by the constitution so I think you’ll see a record of strong support for education,” he added.
In terms of the Alaska Marine Highway System, Ortiz thinks that he and other legislators have been able to raise the importance of the issue to the Legislature — something he says that he has worked hard to do during his time in Juneau.
“I feel like I've been able to work with Sen. (Bert) Stedman, R-Sitka, and work with other coastal legislators,” Ortiz said. “… We all recognize the importance of the marine highway system to the overall economy and to life in Southeast Alaska and life in coastal Alaska.”
“They’ve had cuts, but we’ve been able to prevent more drastic cuts (that) had the support of the interior legislators and Railbelt legislators — we were able to head that off,” he explained.
Ortiz said that AMHS reform would be “at the top of the order of this new legislative session, particularly if Gov. (Bill) Walker stays in office.”
Ortiz also touched on Southeast Conference’s plan to turn the AMHS into a public corporation somewhat akin to the Alaska Rail Road. He said he thinks a bill to start getting that proposal moving will be introduced at the start of the upcoming legislative session.
“Depending on the makeup of the new Legislature, that will depend on how well that overall plan is received and the kind of attention it gets,” he said.
Ortiz also pointed out that he is part of the House Finance Committee, a position that holds some sway in the Legislature.
“I do think that one of the ways District 36 is particularly served is the fact that I’m currently serving on the Finance Committee as a majority member,” Ortiz said, “and, frankly, that’s one of the biggest ways that the interests of the marine highway system can be served, or can be helped at least, is if they have representation in key spots like that.”
Regarding the new flood maps put forward by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ortiz said he has heard some concerns from citizens while on the campaign trail, and that he has spoken with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office on the issue.
“I have both concerns for everybody in our district on this issue, but I also would be one of the people who most negatively be impacted based on the current drawings, and where I live and things like that,” Ortiz said. “So, I’m certainly concerned about the issue and so far I have been looking for avenues for me as a legislator to voice those concerns.
“So I’ve signed on to a letter or two on the issue,” Ortiz added, although he noted that it is more of federal issue and that in some ways his hands are “a little bit more tied than I want them to be.”
In terms of global warming and whether he thought it was a serious issue for the community, Ortiz said he did.
“Climate change certainly is an issue, I think almost — I can’t say 100 percent — but almost everybody recognizes that it’s a fact, it’s not a debate; climate change is happening,” Ortiz said. “… We see manifestations, again, in our fishing industry, I think that one of the factors that’s impacting our fishing industry is water temperature change.”
“So, for me, climate change is about the fishing industry and about looking at what we can do to mitigate or help enhance the overall water quality and the overall habitat for our salmon,” he said.
With President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States, some folks are wondering how abortion laws across the country might change.
When asked about his views on the topic, Ortiz said although he is personally opposed to it, he would not be “an advocate for moving away (from) a woman’s right to have control over her own affairs.”
“I’m pro-life on that issue on a private basis, but I’ve always said and continue to say that my job as a legislator is to enforce the laws of the land; the Constitution of the United States of America,” Ortiz said. “And currently those laws include the Roe v. Wade decision.
“And so I’m not going to be — I never am going to be — one to look to be on the bandwagon of changing that. If a law should change at the federal level then my role would continue to be to enforce the laws of the land,” he added.
When asked about his views on gun control or if he would support any changes to state law, Ortiz said there isn’t much of a push at the state level to change existing laws.
“Frankly we haven’t looked at any particular bills or discussed that particular issue to that level, the significant of a level,” he said. “… We had some meetings and had some discussions about how to make schools more safe and those discussions were pretty wide-ranging.”
Ortiz said in terms of school safety he is not in favor of allowing teachers to be armed in the classroom; although he said some of his colleagues in the past legislative session were. Ortiz also said he doesn’t expect big changes to state gun laws in the upcoming session.
“I’m not going to be on the bandwagon for significant new gun control laws or anything like that,” Ortiz said.
“Alaska is pretty much of a Second Amendment state for sure,” he said. “… So I don’t think there is much appetite there for significant ‘gun control’ in Alaska — but at the same time there are discussions going on that focus on classroom safety and those kinds of things.”
In terms of overall public safety, Ortiz said that the state’s networks and infrastructure relating to crime and rehabilitation could be further bolstered and maintained.
He mentioned that, traditionally, the focus has been placed on managing and treating alcoholism in the community, but that now the issue of treatment and management for residents with opioid and other drug dependencies is coming more to the forefront.
“Heroin, those types of things; I think we need to make sure that we’re up to date, that we’re doing the most progressive things possible to deal with chemical dependency outside of alcohol dependency, as well as alcohol dependency,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz also praised local law enforcement’s efforts to combat the crisis and crime that might be associated with it.
And what issues does Ortiz think are big for the area but aren’t getting enough attention?
“While we’ve made some big progress on the fiscal situation, we’ve got to nail that down,” he said. “We have to get to the point of having a complete balanced budget, not based on balancing it through savings, which we will continue to do this year. Even after SB 26 we’ll have about a $500 (million) to $700 million deficit and so you can’t keep doing that because eventually you’ll run out of savings and then where are you?”
Ortiz also touched on the issue of trans-boundary mining and Canadian mines’ effect on Southeast Alaska. He mentioned how there could be detrimental impacts to the “traditional subsistence lifestyle” of the area, as well as the fishing industry and tourism.
“Not in the sense of ‘mining is bad,’ but in the sense of, potentially, there could be some significant negative impacts of those mines on the Canadian side of the border,” he explained.
Ortiz said he’s not necessarily concerned with what could happen in the next three or four years, but rather “making sure that we have a viable fishing industry 20 to 30 to 40 years from now.”
Looking to the future, the incumbent representative said that he is excited about the future of the fishing industry in District 36.
“I’m so bullish on the fishing industry overall, I feel like there’s some developments particularly in the mariculture part of our fishing industry and shellfish development,” he said.
Ortiz also spoke about the potential to develop an intertie to connect the power grids between Metlakatla and Ketchikan in order to have a steadier source of power for residents on Annette Island.
Overall, Ortiz said that he hopes District 36 residents will research his voting record, noting that he is quite proud of his tenure in the Legislature.
“I am proud of my voting record. If anybody takes a good look at that voting record they’ll know that it’s not a Democratic voting record, it’s not a Republican voting record; it’s a District 36 voting record,” he said.
Ortiz said that he would continue knocking on doors, listening to constituents and getting his message across right up until the election on Nov. 6.