Les Gara

Alaska gubernatorial candidate Les Gara speaks with the Daily News on Wednesday afternoon to discuss his campaign. Staff photo by Sam Stockbridge

Alaska Democratic gubernatorial candidate Les Gara visited Ketchikan Wednesday, becoming the first candidate to visit the First City for the 2022 gubernatorial campaign season.
Gara, who represented West Anchorage in the Alaska House of Representatives from 2002 to 2018, spoke with the Daily News on Wednesday afternoon about why he's running, how the state can solve its fiscal problems, and why he thinks he’s the best candidate to show that bipartisanship can still work in the Legislature.
An “Alaska Democrat”
"I will say that I'm an Alaska Democrat,” said Gara. “I believe in opening (the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge). I believe in mining. I believe in the things that put people to work. I believe in everybody's right to bear arms. I'm a fisherman. … I'm an Alaska Democrat who believes in fishing, who believes in hunting, who believes in the right to bear arms, who doesn't believe in vaccine mandates."
He that believes in defending abortion rights, and supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour to help support single-parent households.
Gara also touted his record on education.
“I'm the only person running for office (in the governor’s race) who has always fought against education budget cuts. Gov. (Mike) Dunleavy is the worst of them. He proposed a $280 million cut his first year — over a quarter billion dollars. That set a record for Alaska state governors. Nobody's proposed a cut like that. But (former) Gov. (Bill) Walker cut $32 million of statutorily promised funding in 2015, vetoed $50 million of public education funds in 2016. I fought that.”
Gara prides himself on fighting for rural issues, too.
“When I was on the (House) Finance Committee, somebody once called me the rural representative from Anchorage, because I was standing up for the marine highway, I was standing up for police in rural communities, I was standing up for— Bethel had no swimming pool, and people drown every single year in Bethel … (and) that town needed a swimming pool,” said Gara. “They meant (the name) it as an insult, but I took it as a compliment.
“My belief is that regardless of whether you're born rich or poor, you have a right to a good education. You have a right to a good paying job. As long as you want to work, you have a right to opportunity and a right to succeed in this state,” Gara concluded. “Twenty thousand more people have left under this governor than have moved up here because they don't see that kind of future for their kids, for themselves, for their grandkids. I want to change that. It goes right to my core beliefs, that people deserve a chance to succeed in this world."
It all starts with the money
As Gara sees it, nearly all of Alaska's current fiscal problems stem from 2013's Senate Bill 21, the landmark oil tax legislation championed by former Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.
The regulation effectively cut taxes on oil producers through a per-barrel tax credit that scales based on price. Because of that credit, the state foregoes about $1.3 billion each year that it otherwise would collect.
Since its passage, the state has been forced to make substantial budget cuts: Gara noted that the state's construction budget is 75% lower than it was in 2014, which has hurt construction workers and laborers and their local economies.
"According to the (University of Alaska), the $400 million cut of state funding to the capital budget is the equivalent of killing 4,000 private and public sector jobs," said Gara. "You have to have money in the economy for private businesses to succeed. If there's nobody to spend money — if you fire all your teachers and all your university professors and all your (Alaska) Marine Highway (System) workers — there's nobody to spend any money at your business."
“At some points, cuts cost you money,” he added.
He also observed that because the base student allocation — the per-student amount of money the state uses to calculate local education funding — hasn't increased since 2014, state education funding is functionally enduring a $120 million cut due to inflation that grows the longer it remains unchanged.
Gara wants to end the per-barrel tax credit in order to alleviate the state's fiscal challenges.
"With $1.3 billion, we wouldn't pit people who want (an Alaska) Permanent Fund dividend against people who want schools, against people who want a university, against people who want a construction budget, against people who want a marine highway system. We should have all of those things," he said. "With $1.3 billion, we could have a bigger dividend than this governor has ever paid. With $1.3 billion, we could have statewide pre-K and not put schools behind inflation every year. We wouldn't have to decimate a marine highway that Southeast relies on. … We could have a university that isn't facing the budget ax every single year."
Drawing a contrast
Throughout the interview, Gara repeatedly contrasted himself with Dunleavy and criticized the governor for his management of the state’s finances since 2018. He pointed out that Dunleavy supported SB 21 when he was a state senator.
"I don't dislike the oil industry. I want to be equal partners with them, but this governor has made us junior partners,” said Gara. “He voted for the law that we have on the books today that has created that $1.3 billion in tax credits. That was SB 21 in 2013. I voted against it. I tried to repeal it in 2014. That's the question is, do you want to give away your wealth to foreign corporations, or do you want to keep it here so we can build a state? I want to keep it here so we can build a state."
He also blasted Dunleavy's failure to deliver on his campaign promise of larger PFDs even as he has cut funding for the Marine Highway System, underfunded School Bond Debt Reimbursement and defended permitting for the proposed Pebble Mine.
"He'd rather give away our oil for nothing and not have schools, and then pretend that he wants a (larger) Permanent Fund dividend, but have no money to fund it," said Gara. "We have money to fund a (larger) dividend this year, because of oil company war profits (from the war in Ukraine). But last year he proposed no way to fund it; the year before he proposed no way to fund it; and the year before he proposed no way to fund it. He's the ultimate liberal, right? He proposed the spending part, but not the funding part. I have the funding part.
"If we had a decent governor, I would not be running for governor,” he added. “But we have a governor who doesn't care about public education. We have a governor who hasn't lifted a finger to bring pensions back to teachers and firefighters and police and child protection workers and correctional officers and marine highway workers. He hasn't lifted a finger. He hasn't lifted a finger to build a single renewable energy project his whole term.”
Building support
Though ballot measures in 2014 and 2020 to effectively end the tax structure of SB 21 failed to secure support from a majority of voters, Gara pointed to the huge disparity in money spent by opponents of those campaigns. Opponents of the proposition on the 2020 ballot raised about $24 million, much of which was supplied by ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Hilcorp, compared to the $1.5 million that the measure’s proponents raised.
Oil tax reform “is the most popular and the most righteously popular way to raise revenue in the state. It is fair. The public supports it. Every poll says the public supports it,” said Gara. “Look, you can’t win an initiative against oil companies that outspend you $27 million to $1 million. But when you’re a governor and you can work with a Legislature, you can do it.”
Gara said that his experience brokering bipartisan deals would leave him well-positioned to organize support for a tax revision.
“I did more to work on campaigns to build the bipartisan … majority that took over in 2017, I would say nobody did more — some people did equal. I believed in that bipartisan Legislature,” he said. “I was on the leadership committee of the bipartisan majority. I had Republican (Rep.) Louise Stutes on my team. I had independent (Rep.) Bryce Edgmon on my team. It was a bipartisan group and I took a leadership role to make sure that the Republicans and the Democrats in that group worked together, that … we drove the center line, we didn't get to …  move to extremes. And I'm proud of the work that I did.”
He also pointed to his work with former Republican Sen. John Coghill to “pass the largest privacy bill in state history together, across party lines,” he said, and to his work with former Republican Rep. Bill Thomas to amend bills to include energy efficiency standards.
Gara said that he’s seen firsthand the negative effects of partisanship in the Legislature, and believes in evaluating legislation on its merits, rather than its sponsors.
"I don't believe that you try and stop a bill just because it's filed by somebody of the other party. And I maintained that as a legislator myself, even when I was in the majority,” he said. “Sometimes I would have fights with my members of the majority and they'd say, ‘Let's stop their bills.’ And my view is, if it's good legislation, it should pass whether it has a Republican's or a Democrat's name on it."
Even if he can’t muster support for a tax overhaul, Gara said, “we’ll figure out a plan B. But if you’re asking me what I believe, my vision says that the biggest companies in the world have to pay a fair share for the oil that the people of Alaska own in common. (Former Gov.) Jay Hammond and I agree on that.”
"We (legislators) don't agree on anything, right? I mean, you need a leader who also will work across party lines and try and build consensus. And I've always built consensus, you know?” he said. “When I was in the minority, there were people in the majority who did not want to build consensus. But when I was in the majority (in the 30th session, from 2018 to 2019), I worked to try to build consensus. That's how I got the state's largest foster care reform passed in a Republican Senate."
“Pete Kelly, a very conservative Republican, was Senate president that year. He invited me over ... to watch them pass (House Bill 151) unanimously in the Senate. And every single senator stood up one by one to co-sponsor that piece of legislation,” he added. “You have to be able to work across party lines."
Ranked choice voting
With Alaska set to hold its first general election using ranked-choice voting this November, Gara said that voters can vote for their favorite candidate, rather than fearing that opposition to Dunleavy will be split between himself and Walker.
“Bill and I will have over 50% of the (vote). I believe I'll finish ahead of Bill Walker. I'll get his second place votes. He believes he'll finish ahead of me. He'll get my second place votes,” said Gara. “But you know, I believe in a year where the Supreme Court's taking away a woman's right to choose, I believe in a year where I have the best education record of anybody, and parents are worried about their children's future, I believe in a year when people are saying who's got the strongest record on the university, it'll be me, and people will say, we'll take a moderate Democrat as our first place choice.”