In Bethel House race, candidates question Democratic cred

If you had to put the two Bethel House candidates somewhere on the political spectrum, they’d both be Democrats. But, maybe with a lowercase “d.”

Bob Herron v Zach Fansler (Photo courtesy of KYUK)
Bob Herron v Zach Fansler (Photo courtesy of KYUK)

Each accuses the other of not being Democratic enough.

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House District 38 has one of the highest population of voters registered as Democrat. The district encompasses Bethel, the lower Kuskokwim River and several coastal villages.

With no Republican challenger, the race will be decided in the Aug. 16 primary.

Incumbent Bob Herron is running for his fifth term in the legislature. He said he’s been registered as a Democrat since the 1970s, but he votes with the Republican-controlled majority in the House. He’s even joined the Republican leadership team.

Party affiliation doesn’t mean as much in rural parts of the state as it does in urban areas, Herron said.

“When you live in Western Alaska, people vote for the person, not necessarily the party,” he said.

But, his party has had enough.

Democrats are hoping to build a bipartisan coalition in the House, and they see District 38 as key to that effort.

House District 38 candidate Zach Fansler and his campaign manager Mitchell Forbes hang campaign signs at a village on the Kuskokwim River. (Photo by Adrian Wagner, KYUK - Bethel)
House District 38 candidate Zach Fansler and his campaign manager Mitchell Forbes hang campaign signs at a village on the Kuskokwim River. (Photo by Adrian Wagner, KYUK – Bethel)

In an unusual move, state Democrats have thrown their support behind a challenger, Zach Fansler, who wasn’t previously registered as a Democrat. Fansler changed his party affiliation the day he filed to be a candidate.

He was either non-partisan or undeclared, though he said he doesn’t remember which.

Fansler’s liberal values align with the Democratic platform — and better reflect the district, he said.

“I’ve always been the person that has been kind of independent,” he said. “It always worried me when we see the exact situation that’s played out. You join a caucus and all of the sudden you are forced to do what they want you to do.”

The district includes more than 30 far-flung communities, from Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea to Russian Mission on the Yukon River and the regional hub, Bethel.

The district has some major challenges.

It’s among the poorest in the state and its schools are some of the lowest performing on the state’s annual exams.

For example, fewer than 10 percent of the Lower Kuskokwim School District students meet state standards for reading and math, according to the state department of education and early development.

In the Bethel census area nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty, according to the United States Census Bureau.

Rep. Herron hanging campaign signs in Kwethluk next to challenger Zach Fansler's sign along the Kuskokwim River. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK - Bethel)
Rep. Herron hanging campaign signs in Kwethluk next to challenger Zach Fansler’s sign along the Kuskokwim River. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK – Bethel)

Herron has a long history in the region. A former Marine, he served as Bethel’s city manager and was a legislative aide for more than a decade.  He also owned Bethel Cablevision and currently owns Golden Eagle LLC, a school bus transportation company.

The best way to represent the district is to join the Majority, Herron said.

“Historically, rural legislators joined whatever majority is, Democratic-led or Republican-led. By joining it you have a better chance of protecting your constituents,” Herron said.

Communities in Herron’s district have seen more than $600 million in capital project funds during his time as a legislator, he said. Programs like power cost equalization would have been harder to defend outside of the majority.

Herron has put the caucus above his district, Fansler said. As a member of the Majority, Herron is  required to  vote with House leadership on the budget, which means opposing amendments from Democrats to restore funding to programs that could benefit his district.

Fansler is a math teacher at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, an attorney and a former race manager for the Kuskokwim300 sled dog race. He’s currently a city council member in Bethel and works as the development director at Bethel’s public radio station, KYUK.

If elected, Fansler said, then he’ll vote differently, particularly when it comes to what gets cut during tough fiscal times.

“One, I won’t be in the Republican majority,” he said. “So, anytime there’s an amendment that comes forward that said ‘hey, let’s restore funding to Head Start.’ My vote would be yes, let’s do that. Not no, which is what the incumbent did. If there’s a restoration of funding to VPSO programs or to Trooper dispatches, my vote’s going to be yes, not no.”

Fansler will vote to keep money in the state’s revenue sharing program, which helps communities fund basic services, he said.

“If there’s a vote to have other revenue streams. My vote’s going to be yes, not no. Conversely, when it comes to oil tax credits, I’m not going to vote no time and time and time again to rolling those back,” he said.

Fansler is targeting one vote in particular: Herron supported the Legislature’s lawsuit challenging Gov. Bill Walker’s decision to expand Medicaid, which offers health insurance to low income Alaskans.

That vote wasn’t about rejecting the expansion, Herron said. It was about what he considers an overreach of the governor’s power.

The two candidates do agree on some things.

Both say Walker’s budget veto that capped Permanent Fund Dividend checks at $1,000 this year will have a disproportionate impact on the state’s rural residents.

Both are opposed to a statewide sales tax, but say an income tax would spread the burden of paying for state government more evenly.

Rashah McChesney is a photojournalist turned radio journalist who has been telling stories in Alaska since 2012. Before joining Alaska's Energy Desk , she worked at Kenai's Peninsula Clarion and the Juneau bureau of the Associated Press. She is a graduate of Iowa State University's Greenlee Journalism School and has worked in public television, newspapers and now radio, all in the quest to become the Swiss Army knife of storytellers.

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