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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Les Gara visits Dillingham and discusses key issues

Les Gara, the lone Democrat in the race for governor, visited Dillingham on Tuesday and Wednesday. He met with several local groups, including the Bristol Bay Native Association, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, the mayor and the city manager. Gara also held a public meet and greet at the boat harbor, where he answered questions covering a variety of issues and listened to residents’ concerns.

Gara served in the Alaska House of Representatives for 16 years representing District 20 and as an assistant attorney general in the prosecution of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. His campaign has raised $1.1 million so far. He’s running against nine other gubernatorial candidates in the August 16 primary.

Gara spoke with KDLG’s Katherine Moncure about his views on education, the Pebble Mine, affordable housing, and the opioid crisis.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Katherine Moncure: If you were elected as governor, what would your top three priorities be?

Les Gara: Number one, we've underfunded education. We're losing teachers. We should have teachers from local communities teaching in local communities. But Alaska is now just a training ground for teachers from outside who come up here for fun for a couple of years and then leave. That does not do our students any good. We need to give people education opportunity.

We should have job training so students get a good education, get a good job, can stay in their communities. And we have to fund things including the permanent fund dividend. But we can't say the permanent fund dividend or schools or job training or community projects.

We shouldn't – we need all of those. And that means ending the $1.2 billion of oil company subsidies we give to the wealthiest oil companies in the world. We should keep that money in the state so we can fund a dividend and schools and a university and construction projects and harbor projects and renewable energy and the things that will create a vibrant community so people can stay here.

And of course, I oppose the Pebble Mine.

Moncure: Speaking of the Pebble Mine, your campaign website states that you would drop Governor Dunleavy's lawsuit filed on behalf of the Pebble Mine. Is that referring to the appeal of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ permit denial?

Gara: Yeah. Ever since he's been governor, he's one of the last people in the state that still supports this mine. And I will institute regulations to make sure we don't trade fish for mines. I will never trade fish for mines. Look, we can have responsible mining in the state. The Pebble Mine is not responsible.

Moncure: Do you have any more details on what those regulations might look like?

Gara: We need to ensure the proper protection of fish and game. And the proper protection of fish means a regulation that says, basically we do not cause any substantial threat to fish by development.

And we need responsible development in the state. Responsible development creates jobs. You can institute regulations as governor that would provide public notice, public comment, public a process, a fair public process and say that basically we don't trade mines for fish.

Moncure: Are you in favor of other mines or would you oppose all mines in Bristol Bay?

Gara: Well, Bristol Bay is a special area. It's very hard to imagine a mine in Bristol Bay that doesn't endanger salmon. I suppose in theory you could see one. But basically, if a mine is a substantial threat to our fish, then it should not go forward. If a mine can be done responsibly, then it's okay.

Moncure: Dillingham, along with many other communities throughout Alaska, has been experiencing a severe shortage of affordable housing. What policies would you implement to address this, and how would those policies impact the people of Bristol Bay?

Gara: Yeah, we have a shortage of housing, affordable housing across the state. It's the unspoken issue that nobody talks about. This governor's never talked about it. And it's not an easy issue to address, but there has to be some state partnership that helps build and construct new housing.

That could be the use of state lands that are not high use recreational lands. But we could, in some communities, open up state lands to housing. We have to provide housing that's affordable. The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation can provide low interest loans in a better way than it does right now. You know, the state has a program that hasn't been funded for over a decade that helps build utility easements into a new subdivision. So the new subdivision can provide lower cost housing. The state hasn't hasn't funded it in a decade. That's one thing we could do.

HFC [Housing Finance Corporation] can use some help so we can partner with local housing agencies and authorities to build mixed income housing. Low income housing doesn't really work so well where you put everybody who doesn't have money all in the same place. We should mix the housing. So mixed income housing works really well so that, you know, people of all economic backgrounds live together. But of course, folks who need the help the most should get the help.

Moncure: The communities of Bristol Bay and communities all around Alaska have faced an unprecedented number of opioid overdoses and deaths. In Naknek, for example, the executive director of the local health clinic, Camai Community Health Center, estimates that they see two to three overdoses per week. What measures would you take to address the opioid crisis?

Gara: Yeah, I voted in the past to do more on the opioid crisis. I mean, doctors should tell people that if you're on an opioid prescription, that can turn into an addiction and heroin use. They need to be explicit about that when they give you the prescription. I tried to pass a bill and some in the industry opposed it and stopped the bill from passing.

We need to have, I think, a much larger force of specialized troopers to intercept heroin before it comes out to rural Alaska, sometimes fentanyl-based heroin that then kills people.

The state is terrible in terms of providing the treatment people need when they're ready to be treated, whether it's alcoholism or drug abuse. When somebody is ready to be treated for their addiction, we should have a space for them to give them the treatment. And when somebody is ready they find out there's a six month waiting list.

So it's a multifaceted approach. We need more mental health clinicians in the state and we need to train them. And right now we're flying up mental health clinicians from the lower 48. It costs too much money. We should train people to do the jobs that are needed in Alaska so Alaskans can work. So somebody in Bethel or somebody in Dillingham can get a job that they want in Bethel or Dillingham and don't have to move away from their hometown.

Everybody deserves a good school. Whether or not you're born rich or poor, that is your ticket to the future. Everybody deserves good job training, whether you're born rich or poor. But right now I'm running because I see the state as a state that is okay if you're wealthy. And for the rest of us, I think you sort of get kicked to the curb. And I think I want to make sure everybody has a chance in this world.

Get in touch with the author at Katherine@kdlg.org or call (907) 842-2200.

Katherine is covering local stories in Dillingham and the Bristol Bay area for the summer of 2022, and she's excited to be in Alaska for the first time. She's passionate about all forms of storytelling, and she recently graduated from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, a 15-week intensive in radio and podcast production. When not working on stories or hosting the morning news, Katherine enjoys cooking, reading, and going on aimless walks. She'll pet any dog that wants attention.