Alaska needs a new governor. Southeast Alaska needs a new governor badly. Four more years of this governor’s hostility toward Southeast Alaska will take decades to undo. The Alaska Marine Highway’s near-demise under this governor is just one example of the wreckage he has brought to Southeast. The election in November offers all of Alaska the choice of a better way forward. It starts by electing Les Gara our next governor.
His personal story is remarkable. Les’ father, a family doctor who cared for low-income patients in New York City, was murdered at his Harlem office when Les was only 6. Thrust into the foster care system, Les applied himself to his studies and beat the long odds that face most foster care youths. He graduated from high school, then college, then law school, and not just any law school, but Harvard Law. Les soon moved to Alaska, bringing his remarkable wife Kelly, who recently completed 30 years of service at Providence and is still going strong. Les started his career working for one of Alaska’s legal giants, then-Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz, and went on to the Department of Law, where he helped force Exxon to pay for the damage it did when its tanker spilled millions of gallons of oil in Prince William Sound.
Les brought his skills to the Legislature. The first effort we collaborated on was his most audacious. Les came to me one day and told me he was preparing a bill to fix our broken oil tax system. This was in 2004. It is easy to forget now just what a stranglehold the oil industry had on state politics at the time. An oil services company, VECO, and its owner, Bill Allen, lavished campaign contributions on oil industry supporters and then resorted to outright bribery to combat any changes to an oil tax, called ELF, that was leaving Alaska impoverished.
Les’ meticulous research revealed that most oil fields in Alaska were paying ridiculously low tax rates. Kuparuk, the second largest oil field in North America at the time, had a steadily declining tax rate that was below 3% and would soon be reduced to zero. Les convinced me and a few others to sign on to his effort. We were met, predictably, with legislative stonewalling. In the next election cycle, our opponents were very well funded. VECO’s bribery was revealed in dramatic FBI raids on legislative offices in August 2006 and in that upheaval a reformer governor named Sarah Palin was elected. The next year, in 2007, the legislature passed ACES, a triumph whose cornerstone was set by the hard persistent work of Les Gara.
ACES made Alaska rich. The oil industry wasn’t happy. A timely reapportionment map changed the makeup of the legislature just enough to pass an oil tax reduction in 2013. The vote to reduce oil taxes in the state senate was 11-9. A new office holder there, Mike Dunleavy, provided one of the crucial votes.
The budget surpluses that subsequent legislatures and governors have frittered away all came from ACES. The boom in drilling and production that supporters of reducing oil taxes promised never materialized. With oil production in a steady decline the Permanent Fund’s earnings are now the most important component of the state budget. Governor Dunleavy’s approach to this crisis has been to promise – but not deliver – ever bigger dividends. After four years of failure, who believes him?
Les can get the state back on firm footing. He will revitalize the Alaska Marine Highway. He will focus on creating jobs by repairing the $2 billion in backlogged maintenance needs of our roads, ports, university and schools, and on addressing climate change. Les has his priorities straight. He has a track record of working across party lines to get things done.
Alaska’s adoption of ranked choice voting means that every voter is free to vote their conscience, without regard to ‘splitting the vote.’ Join me, Tony and Susan Knowles, Vic Fischer and Jane Angvik, AlexAnna and Christina Salmon, Mike Williams Sr., and thousands of others across the state in supporting Les Gara for governor.
• Hollis French is a former Alaska state senator and past gubernatorial candidate.