Giessel, Devon square off in District N Senate race
The big race on Nov. 6, at least as far as the sign wars in Seward go, is the senate race for the newly formed District N. The two South Anchorage candidates running for the opportunity to represent the district, which includes Seward, as well as Moose Pass, Hope, Cooper Landing, Sterling, and Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula, and Indian, Girdwood and South Anchorage hillside, could not be more different. They have both been hard at work visiting the area, knocking on doors and trying to garner votes.
Incumbent Senator Cathy Giessel, a nurse and one-term Republican, formerly representing District P, is up against challenger Ron Devon, a small businessman running as an independent. Each has thus far held at least one constituent meet-and-greet in Seward, and Giessel was spotted in Seward Saturday, going to Kenai Peninsula Borough Assemblywoman Sue McClure’s annual constituent meetings at Lowell Point, Moose Pass, Cooper Landing and beyond. The two (Devon and Giessel) also sparred at the Seward Chamber of Commerce Forum on Sept. 17. It was at that forum that their differences really began to emerge.
The first issue upon which they differ is education. Giessel co-sponsored SB106 on school vouchers during the last legislative session. It failed. The public voucher system would allow parents to use the state’s per-student allocation (currently used to determine funding amounts and staffing levels for public schools) to send their children to private, religious or charter schools, or other forms of education. At the Anchorage Tea Party Forum 2012 that she attended, the senator raised a green paddle in the air to indicate that she was in favor of “the complete privatization of education in Alaska.”
Devon does not support instituting a school voucher program, saying it would create a two-tiered system of education, and that public schools are “the great equalizer.” The National Educators Association backs Devon, saying his stance on the major education issues more closely matches their own. Devon supports inflationary increases to the base student allocation for instance, said NEA’s Alaska public affairs spokesperson Ron Fuhrer. There have been no increases tied to inflation in the last three years, not even to keep up with the rising cost of living, he said. The per-student allocation bill that passed last session, unfortunately was “flat funded,” he said. Giessel also voted against the defined pension benefit option that would have saved the state $10 million in the first year, and $60 million in savings over eight years, said Fuhrer.
“The founding fathers backed education. They felt that an informed citizenry would make the best choices. At the same time, I believe there should be choices for parents as well,” said Giessel during the Seward Chamber forum. “My husband and I made it. I stayed home for 12 years and homeschooled our children. Education is about children. Each child is different.”
“My two younger kids went through private school for two years. That was my choice. But I don’t feel we should be jeopardizing public schools by using private funds. I fully support public education,” said Devon.
Giessel asked Devon what he felt “fully funding” education really means.
It’s the allocation for public funding, based on the number of children attending public school, so that teachers have all the tools they need, and so class sizes don’t become so large that they can’t educate all of those students well, he said.
“Full funding is a bottomless pit when it comes to all those requests,” Giessel retorted. She displayed a cutout pie chart detailing the amount of money that the state spends for different purposes. The large blue piece of the pie, $1.4 billion, was for public education. “There’s another billion when you include the University of Alaska. Then public safety is this little piece. How much more of this pie do we give to education? How much is enough? We have set aside $1.14 billion in savings to allocate to education, but the question is, when do we see how this money is spent, and what the outcome is? Are we getting what we’re paying for?”
Her comments echoed Governor Sean Parnell in the last session, who said the school funding request represented the state’s greatest giveaway, and argued that they still lacked evidence that the schools were actually doing a good job teaching Alaska’s children.
Another major issue upon which the two candidates differ, is the value of bipartisanship. As a life-long independent, Devon said, he’s always been a strong believer in working with people from opposing parties to get things done. That’s why he chose to run for office, he said. Devon claimed his opponent does not believe in working across party lines — or even with more moderate Republicans who chose to work with Senate democrats in the bipartisan caucus last session. Giessel is one of four conservative Republicans who elected to stay with the minority party of four rather than working inside the bipartisan caucus with the other six Republicans, including Senate President Gary Stevens, of Kodiak. In so doing, Devon said she took herself outside of a process that would have afforded her a seat at the table during all of the debates on issues, finances, and where she could have received committee chairmanships. Giessel even signed a pledge by the Alaska Tea Party, that she would refuse to work with Democrats, he said.
“In the last session, Cathy, you did not work with the majority in Juneau, which left our district without representation in Juneau. I fully understand it. If you had been offered a (committee chairmanship) in Juneau would you have taken it?” said Devon.
“I did work with the majority in Juneau. You can’t pass four pieces of legislation without working across the aisle. I have significant appropriations for my district,” replied Giessel. Of the four “significant bills” she collaborated on this session, she said, was a bill that temporarily restored federal funding for vaccines, which had been cut for many people who had earlier been allowed to receive them. That bill received strong support by Democrats as well, she said. She also sponsored SB 140 that banned the sale of bath salts or synthetic cocaine; and SB 146 that allowed a Snow Classic game fundraiser for Girdwood Four Valleys Community Schools; and SB 181, a bill that opened up some state land adjacent to Alyeska Resort for recreation use on trails. Regardless of her affiliation, she had gotten road work done, and secured other needed funding for her district’s constituents, said Giessel.
Would she then join with another bipartisan caucus if re-elected?
“I won’t make a statement, because I don’t know who would be in it. The majority creates the agenda for that body. I want to see Alaska move forward, and also the private sector, to see greater resource development.” She continued, “The Alaska pipeline was blocked. I don’t want to see that again. That was the agenda of the (bipartisan) caucus.”
The bipartisan caucus provided stiff opposition to Alaska Governor Sean Parnell’s proposed reform of ACES, which would have reduced the amount of taxes that major oil companies operating on the North Slope pay to the State of Alaska by an estimated $2 billion per year. Rather, they proposed to make those tax reductions contingent upon the oil companies promising to actually develop specific new or existing oil fields. Alaska’s Arctic oil patch is in decline, and Parnell and those backing him, including Giessel, think a tax cut will turn the decline around by encouraging new investment.
“They said, ‘trust us and we’ll do the right thing,’” Devon said, in a recent Seward interview. But for 30 years, they have failed to even start developing the other oil fields they own, such as the enormous field at Point Thompson, nor tried to develop a gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the LNG plant in Nikiski, he added.
Giessel received an A-plus rating from the Alaska Chamber of Commerce for her pro-business and pro-energy record, while most of the Democrats, and moderate Republicans, including Senator Stevens, received Fs.
The two candidates stand on opposite sides on women’s reproductive health issues, but Giessel downplayed her pro-life position, and related activities.
“When it comes to a women’s decision, for me it’s a privacy issue, a personal rights issue and it needs to be between a woman, her doctor and her faith,” said Devon.
“Abortion is legal in this country, so that choice is available to women in the state,” said Giessel. As a nurse, who has provided health care all over the state, when meeting with a client she said, “I’m not telling them what to do. I’m offering them options. I try to make them fully informed, and make their own choices. The fact is abortion is legal.”
Giessel did not mention that she had sponsored a bill last session requiring that all women seeking an abortion be given an ultrasound, and requiring that their physician describe it to them in detail, unless they declined, in writing, to having the description of the ultrasound. Ultrasound often is used by groups opposed to abortion to dissuade clients from choosing an abortion. Giessel chaired the Anchorage Crisis Pregnancy Center’s board of directors from 2009 to 2010, and also was its vice chair. On its website, CPC Pregnancy Center describes itself as “a Christ-centered non-profit organization dedicated to providing accurate information, services and support to individuals to help them make informed, life affirming decisions about pregnancy, sexual integrity, parenting and post abortion recovery.” CPC regularly provides ultrasound to those seeking an abortion, and boasts that over 85 percent of those who visit the Anchorage office continue their pregnancy. They make no referrals for abortion, and the information presented to clients emphasizes the negative consequences of abortion, stresses problems inherent in contraception and suggests that women should practice “abstinence only” until they are in a committed relationship, such as marriage.
“Would the candidates, if elected, support legislation that restricts access to abortion?” a follow up chamber forum question pressed.
“I fully support the right of women to make her own decision,” said Devon.
“I think I answered that question before,” said Giessel. “There is no current legislation to restrict abortion. There is not any. I won’t make any pledge about any piece of legislation before I see it.”