In the biennial election for Alaska’s lone representative to U.S. Congress, the Alaska Democratic Party has sent up a steady stream of candidates attempting to defeat Republican Don Young, Alaska’s longest serving member of Congress, elected in a 1973. The latest most probably will be Forrest Dunbar of Anchorage. Although Dunbar still has to defeat primary opponent Frank Vondersaar of Homer to win the party nomination to run for U.S. Congress, Dunbar already has been endorsed by the Alaska Democratic Party.
On July 1, Dunbar visited Homer for a talk at Captain’s Coffee. About 15 people attended, including Vondersaar. Unlike more liberal-leaning candidates who have run against Young, Dunbar comes across as a moderate and centrist. With his Ivy League education and military background, he could be a young former Gov. Tony Knowles. On other positions he’s more to the traditional left of the party. Dunbar also opposes the Pebble Mine, Senate Bill 21 and the Hobby Lobby U.S. Supreme Court decision, and supports marriage equality and is pro-choice on abortion.
A lifelong Alaskan, Dunbar was born in 1984 and spent his first seven years in Eagle, a village on the Yukon River. In 1991, his family, including sister Esther, moved to Cordova. He spent two summers working on a commercial fishing boat and a summer in college working as a wildland firefighter. Dunbar said the last time he visited Homer was with the Cordova High School basketball team.
“What I remember most distinctly, aside from the fact I scored two out of four points, there was a whale skeleton hanging in the high school,” he said, referring to a sperm whale skeleton in the Homer High School commons.
At 17, after graduating from Cordova Junior-Senior High School, Dunbar got his first taste of national politics when he was an intern for former Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska. While attending American University, he worked as a part-time staffer for Rep. Madeliene Bordallo, D-Guam. After college he served in the Peace Corps and then got a master’s degree in public policy and a law degree from the Harvard Kennedy School and Yale Law School. As a lawyer, he’s worked for Alaska Legal Services and for law firms representing Native corporations and oil companies. He was recently commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Alaska Army National Guard.
Dunbar said he’s running because he knows Alaska can do better than Young. Recent ethical scandals have crippled Young’s power, Dunbar said.
“For the last six years, Don Young hasn’t been effective,” he said, despite Young’s seniority as the fourth ranking member of the House of Representatives.
Dunbar attacked the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, which said a family-owned corporation has the same religious rights as an individual and did not have to provide certain kinds of contraception in employee health plans. It comes from the same place as the Citizens United decision, where the court gives personhood to corporations, he said.
“Hobby Lobby actually isn’t a constitutional decision. It’s an RFRA decision,” Dunbar said, mentioning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “It’s bunk. It’s nonsense law.”
Hobby Lobby has galvanized the opposition, Dunbar said.
“You’re starting to see this extreme — you can’t even call it Republicanism — it’s corporatism,” he said. “The Democratic Party isn’t going to stand for it, Mark Begich isn’t going to stand for it and I’m not going to stand for it.”
In a question and answer period, Dunbar was asked how he felt about climate change.
“We really are the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “We’re really seeing impacts in climate change in Alaska.”
Climate change is happening and human beings are a factor, he said. Dunbar said he supports aggressive investment in alternative energy and energy conservation. At the same time, he supports developing Alaska oil and gas resources.
“We are an oil and gas producing state, and we will be for the short and the medium term,” he said. “I don’t think that’s actually in tension with simultaneously saying we need to conserve energy and we need to invest in alternative energy.”
On a question about gun control, Dunbar laid out a stance that some in the audience bristled at.
“I’m a gun owner. I’m from a gun-owning family. I’m a member of the U.S. military,” he said. “I’m a pro-gun Democrat.”
America doesn’t need more gun regulation. We need better enforcement, Dunbar said.
“At the same time you can’t support slashing mental health funding,” he said.
He may not be as pro-gun as some would like, he said. The Gun Owners of America sent him a survey, and Dunbar said to get their endorsement he’d have to support striking down the Lautenberg Amendment, an act that requires some domestic violence offenders to give up their guns. He wouldn’t repeal that.
On developing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Dunbar said he understands the concerns of the Gwich’in people in Interior Alaska who rely on the Porcupine caribou herd for subsistence, a herd that calves in the foothills of ANWR.
“To me the biggest reason not to develop oil is the impact on the Gwich’in food resource,” he said.
Dunbar proposed a compromise on ANWR: develop in stages. If the oil companies can drill and produce responsibly, fine. If development impacts the caribou herd, “Pull the plug,” he said.
On repealing Senate Bill 21, Ballot Measure 1 on the Aug. 19 primary ballot, Dunbar said he will vote yes. He also supports the Sen. Hollis French and Sen. Bill Wielchowski proposal. That idea would give SB 21 five years to work. If at that time there isn’t more oil produced or more revenue earned than the last year of the former oil tax mechanism, SB 21 would expire.
On marriage equality or allowing gays and lesbians to marry, Dunbar said he’s very supportive. He cited his sister’s experience, who is gay and married her wife.
“I look forward to the day when her marriage is recognized here,” he said.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.