Here’s what Alaska’s US Senate candidates had to say at the first-ever debate in the Arctic

By Erica Martinson, Alaska Dispatch News - October 27, 2016
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Four of Alaska’s five U.S. Senate candidates found a lot to agree on in the state’s first Arctic debate in Barrow Wednesday — on bolstering the Arctic’s profile in Washington and allowing targeted gun control — but differed on the role of term limits in the federal government.

The candidates differed largely on the best way — and person — to get those things for Alaska.

The four candidates “will probably agree on lots of things,” independent Margaret Stock said at the start of the debate. “I think we’ll agree that the federal government should be paying more attention to the Arctic. I think we will agree that the federal government should be increasing its research on the effects of climate change on subsistence, on resource development and on national security in the Arctic. I think we will agree that the federal government should be building more icebreakers.” But the best way to move Congress in that direction would differ between candidates, she (accurately) predicted.

Stock hit the debate stage at Barrow High School with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, independent candidate Breck Craig and Democratic candidate Ray Metcalfe. Libertarian candidate Joe Miller did not attend the debate.

The Arctic holds great challenges for Alaska, Murkowski said: in government-abandoned legacy wells, coastal erosion, drugs and alcohol.

Stock sought to differentiate herself from Murkowski, who has led recent polls, by pointing to the Republican Party’s difficulties in managing an increasingly partisan Congress.

“If we have a major political party that is committed to obstructionism and denying science, then whatever we agree on here simply will die due to congressional gridlock,” Stock said.

 

Term limits

Some of the candidates agreed — in response to a question from the audience on the intent of the nation’s Founding Fathers — that one way to cut the partisan nature of Congress would be term limits.

Several of the candidates promised to limit their time in Congress to just two terms — 12 years — if elected, though some questioned whether that would be the best tactic for Alaska.

The Founding Fathers expected “ordinary citizens” to head to the Capitol for short periods of time and then return home, Stock said, lamenting a system filled with “career politicians.”

“I do support term limits and I will step down after serving two terms in the United States Senate,” Stock said.

Metcalfe agreed.

“I’m 66 today, and I promise to step down at 78,” he told the crowd.

Murkowski, who is seeking her third term, was less clear on the matter.

“A career politician probably is bad for the country. … You need to know how taxes impact a family and a business before you change tax policies. You have to have the breadth and depth of experience beyond just being a lawmaker,” she said.

But, she noted, Alaska has a small delegation and “building up that seniority is important for us in the Senate as well as in the Congress.”

Craig agreed both with the concept of term limits on the federal level and with Murkowski that “it would not be advantageous for Alaska to be the only state in the union” taking a stand on term limits, he said.

“It’s going to take a constitutional amendment,” he said.

 

Infrastructure

The group broadly agreed that the U.S. needs more focus on national security in the Arctic, given recent Russian activity in the region.

Craig noted that the closest U.S. Coast Guard base is 800 miles away, in Kodiak.

Murkowski said she is also concerned about China’s interest and activity in the region. The senator cited her ongoing efforts to fund an icebreaker, as well as other infrastructure she said is needed in the area: navigational aids, ocean charting, telecommunications and ports.

“It’s more than just a place to put a ship in a safe harbor,” Murkowski said of the Arctic’s infrastructure needs.

 

Gun control

The candidates also broadly touted an affection for the Second Amendment and an interest in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.

“I absolutely support gun control,” Craig said, noting his support for gun ownership as well, and his time as a U.S. Marine. “I think that especially in urban, dense areas, it’s important that you don’t have a lot of handguns around, especially high-caliber semi-automatic weapons. There’s just too many people. It’s a very different experience than in Alaska, where we actually use our firearms to hunt.”

Stock too noted her own use of firearms, both as a military police officer and for personal protection in remote areas of Alaska.

“But I do believe it’s important for us to make sure that we close some of the loopholes that prevent people who are mentally ill, criminals and terrorists, that allow them to get access to firearms and create a public safety threat,” she said. The first step to tackling the problem of gun violence, Stock said, would be to allow the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to study gun violence.

Democrats in the House and Senate for several years have attempted to reverse the impact of a 1997 budget amendment that effectively keeps the CDC from studying gun-related deaths. Senate Republicans blocked amendments to an appropriations bill this summer.

Stock noted that Alaska leads the nation in gun deaths. This is true, on a per-capita basis. Suicide is the leading cause of gun deaths in Alaska.

Murkowski advocated “making sure that we do not have guns in the hands of those that should not, whether they are the terrorists or those that are mentally ill.”

And “far too often, the firearm gets in the hand of someone who’s passed a background check — there’s no problem there — but alcohol or some substance abuse has been involved. We have to address this as an issue, because this is what is killing our people,” she said.

Metcalfe said that he agrees with the National Rifle Association on the idea that “if you outlaw guns, only criminals will have guns.” But “aside from that, I think the NRA has some crazy ideas too,” he said. Pointing to the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in June, Metcalfe said that there should be an alert system for when someone who has been under investigation for possible terrorist activity purchases weapons and ammunition.

 

The presidential race

Nobody on the Arctic stage Wednesday plans to vote for Republican nominee Donald Trump. The two independent candidates — Stock and Craig — and the Democrat, Metcalfe, said they will vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Murkowski demurred on the question.

“I do not favor either of the nominees. I do not favor Mrs. Clinton and I do not favor Mr. Trump,” she said. Murkowski said previously that she will not vote for Trump.

But the senator did say she is concerned about Clinton’s approach to oil drilling, saying that it “will not only hold back the Arctic, it will hold back Alaska,” and urging voters to factor the matter into their presidential votes.

Craig echoed those concerns, saying he has reservations about Clinton’s stance on drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But, he said, “I believe I can work with her … to get the drilling rights and the expedited permits we that we need to open up our resources.”

Craig said he doesn’t see Trump as a “viable candidate for the Arctic, because I doubt seriously he knows anything about it, and unless he can put a hotel here, he probably will have no interest in knowing anything about it.”

Like Craig, Stock said she plans to vote for Clinton.

“I agree with her on many issues, including women’s reproductive rights, the need to make college affordable, and opposing Republican plans to make Medicaid into a complicated and inadequate voucher system,” she said.

Stock argued that Clinton won’t “be a disaster for Alaska or the Arctic at all.”

“For eight years we’ve been told that Obama would be a disaster for the Arctic and he has been very supportive of Alaska Native interests and concerns. The Obama administration also approved drilling permits in NPRA and the Chukchi Sea,” and sent climate mitigation funding to the state, Stock said.

Metcalfe said his main concern with the two candidates is their chance to appoint justices to the Supreme Court. One of the nine members, Antonin Scalia, died earlier this year and Congress has not voted on President Barack Obama’s nomination to replace him. It is likely that the next president will have additional opportunities to appoint judges: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83 years old, Anthony Kennedy is 80 and Stephen Breyer is 78.

Trump will appoint “judges that are not sympathetic to Native issues,” Metcalfe asserted.

“I’m going to reluctantly vote for Hillary because I do have some issues with her, but that Supreme Court is very, very important to everyone in this room,” he said.