Gubernatorial candidate Gara and running mate Cook visit Bethel region

Candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor Les Gara and Jessica Cook visited Bethel and several area villages on June 24-25, 2022 as part of their rural campaign tour. Bethel folks were invited to a Meet & Greet at the Riverside Park. The team also traveled upriver to Akiak, Akiachak, and Kwethluk to visit and talk about issues. Here are a few questions that they answered after their trip.

Please introduce yourself to the people of the Yukon Kuskokwim delta region.

My wife Kelly and I have lived in Alaska since 1988. We have been married for 32 years. Jessica grew up in Alaska, lives in Palmer, and is married to her Air Force veteran husband Ed. She has three children and five grandchildren.

I grew up in foster care, after my father was killed by an intruder when I was 6. From ages 3 – 6 I lived from apartment to apartment with my mother. From my background, I believe that everyone deserves an opportunity in this world, and the rights to happiness and to succeed.

Most people suffer their own form of difficulty, and I believe everyone has the right to a good school, good job training, and college if that’s your chosen path, and that you deserve those things whether you are born rich or poor. I received those things, and I want to make sure everyone else does too.

I worked my way through grade school, college and law school, and was fortunate to get scholarships and financial aid. I believe that if you are born with hardship or without wealth, money should never be a barrier to school or college or job training.

After the catastrophic Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989 – the largest oil spill in U.S. history at the time – I worked as an Alaska Assistant Attorney General on the civil prosecution of Exxon.

I served in the Alaska Legislature from 2003 – 2018, where I focused on bringing opportunity to people, rural and urban, so they could have a chance to succeed in this world.

In 2018 I passed the largest foster care reform legislation in state history, to try to increase success and opportunity for foster youth, to try to keep them from being separated from their families when possible, and to try to make sure that if they go into foster care, they can live with extended family like aunts, cousins and grandparents instead of being sent to another part of the state to live with strangers.

Thank you for coming to Bethel, is this your first time here and what did you feel like you accomplished with this visit?

I have visited Bethel before, and have boated upriver from Bethel, and camped and fished. I’m alarmed by the decline in Kuskokwim and Yukon River fish since my earlier visits, and believe we need to do everything we can to restore these fish runs so people in the region can have a subsistence priority for food, and so people in local communities can commercial fish when those runs are built back.

Jessica and I wanted to hear proposals for building back fish runs, including the need to place strict limits on Outside Factory Trawlers that kill over 1,000 tons of halibut, and over 500,000 chum and king salmon.

We wanted to learn as much as possible about how to create more opportunities for people to succeed, find good jobs, and get the training they need for good jobs.

The region needs and deserves better, cheaper internet so more people can succeed in school, and at work.

And we wanted to hear the health care and mental health treatment gaps that we can fix in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region.

We were able to meet with local city leaders including the Mayor and CJ McCormick. We were able to hear from people at the People’s Learning Center on job training, from Yukon Kuskokwim Health Center, Bethel Native Corporation, from residents who attended meeting to share ideas, and from members at the from Kuskokwim Intertribal Fish Commission on building back salmon runs.

I traveled with Mike Williams Sr. upriver to Kwethluk, Akiak, and Akiachak so I could hear from people in these villages.

We appreciated that so many people shared ideas with me, in Bethel and upriver.

There are ten teams on the ballot for Governor? What makes you and Jessica the best candidates?

Jessica is a 20-year teacher and education leader. I’m the only candidate who has consistently voted to keep school funding up with costs, so students can have the courses they need, and the best teachers possible. That means training teachers from the region to become teachers so they can remain home if they choose, and help the next generation.

We are running against candidates who have cut public school funding, and believe that is the wrong way to go. That doesn’t create opportunity, it harms opportunity.

We believe, like Mike Williams Sr. from Akiak, that every community deserves police protection, and that too many villages have no VPSO’s or police at all.

We believe that Outside Factory Trawlers cannot be allowed to keep killing so many salmon and halibut. A Governor has the power to name a majority of the Council that governs these wasteful practices. I will get people on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council who will limit this waste of fish.

We believe local people in the region should have a subsistence priority when fish are scarce, and that there should be local representation on the Alaska Board of Fish.

We believe that everyone deserves good, fast, affordable internet and will work to bring that to all Alaskans.

We were alarmed to see the Governor try to take the funds out of our PCE Fund twice in his first four years. People need PCE to keep down the high cost of electricity.

We believe in bringing lower cost energy to Alaskans, including renewable energy.

We believe in a consistently strong PFD, not just one in an election year. We should never make people choose between schools, jobs, renewable energy, safe water, or a PFD. By ending $1.2 billion in subsidies Alaska gives to the wealthiest oil corporations in the world, we can have the state funds we need to address all these problems, and more. I have voted to end those subsidies when I was a legislator.

We believe we need to do everything we can so people are treated with dignity, and so people can succeed in life.

Rural Alaska faces many issues – what are the most important issues to you for our rural residents?

As stated above, fast, affordable internet is needed for all people, all villages deserve public safety offices, people deserve lower cost power and renewable energy projects that help reduce energy costs. Renewable energy also helps us slow the advance of global warming, which needs to be addressed, and which endangers our communities and our fish.

We believe people deserve access to good job training and college, and good teachers who understand Alaska Native culture, especially teachers who have grown up in the region.

We also want regional representatives in our Administration, so we have voices from across the state making policy.

How do you see yourself dealing with conflict and disagreements in your line of work?

We are the only Democrats running in this race, but we believe you have to work with people of all parties, from all regions of the state. I have always done that as a legislator. We should build bridges, not tear them down when we try to solve problems. We need to find people who are willing to work together to solve problems, and we will do that.

What is your next order of business in your campaign?

We will continue to travel across the state to hear from people so we can represent them well. Sadly, in March Governor Dunleavy ended campaign contribution limits, so wealthy people can donate as much as they want to candidates with no donation limits anymore. To battle that policy of unlimited money in politics, which gives the wealthiest people the biggest voices, we need to keep fundraising to make sure we can get out our message for a better future. We can’t let others buy this election.

Do you have anything else to add or to talk about?

Every day politicians Pledge Allegiance to the Flag, and say we believe in “liberty and justice for all.” We believe those words mean something. We think we should do liberty and justice for all, not just say it.

Quyana, Les Gara and Jessica Cook.