Voters in the Kenai-Soldotna area will have a handful of candidates to choose from this fall when deciding who they want to represent them in the state House of Representatives. One caveat: they’re all conservative, and three are running in the primary on Aug. 18.
District 30 is currently represented by Gary Knopp, a two-term representative from Kenai. He’s running for a third term, but Ron Gillham of Ridgeway, Kelly Wolf of Kenai, and James Baisden of Kenai have all stepped forward to challenge him. Gillham and Wolf are running as Republicans in the primary, while Baisden is running as a nonpartisan candidate in the general.
Knopp drew the ire of some local Republicans in 2019 when he decided to caucus with the bipartisan House majority, leading to a recall effort and censure from the District 30 Republicans. The official local organization has endorsed Gillham.
Wolf said he withdrew from his leadership role in the local district because of the fragmentation and what he described as immature behavior. Having served in the House back in 2004, Wolf said he decided to run again because he is frustrated with the process in Juneau.
"I understand there are legislative leaders that call themselves conservative, but they’re not, and they’re not listening to the constituents," he said. "That’s the reason I got concerned, and I said hey, I’ve spent the last twenty plus years doing public service with Youth Restoration Corps and five years of my life in the last twenty years, I’ve spent in politics, and I consider it public service—not a place of stature or presence, it’s public service, serving my community."
He cited the issues of dispelling binding caucuses, implementing a state spending cap, and paying out the Permanent Fund Dividend as priorities. He said voters are divided in the district and may be angry at Knopp or fearful of him because he says he is planning to go in and make changes in Juneau.
Knopp agreed that the district is fractured, particularly the Republican Party, as some members continue to move to the right, focused on the PFD issue. Despite the recall effort and the District 30 board’s calls for him to not run as a Republican, he said his move to work across the aisle with the bipartisan majority was to make sure the House did not divide and fail.
Going into a third term, he said it’s important that people be realistic about the state’s fiscal situation.
"The numbers don’t lie—the state simply has no money," Knopp said. "We’re just on the verge of being broke. It doesn’t help that the governor continues to tout full PFDs and back payments. It simply doesn’t help to do that when you know the math doesn’t work; it can’t be done. If you take the earnings reserve and spend it, it’s not there to work for you. When you passed SB 26 to use the POMV plan, it was never mathematically possible to follow that formula and the old statutory formula to calculate at the same time what you could draw. And to overdraw, when we spend more than what we’re taking in— you continue to spiral down that hill. We get crucified for spending $14, $15, $16 billion over the past five years, they’re asking us to continue down that path."
Gillham, who previously ran against Sen. Peter Micciche (R-O) in 2018 on a platform of restoring back PFD payments and cutting state spending, did not return a request for an interview.
Baisden, who currently serves as chief of staff for Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, said he chose to run because of concerns about the state continuing to kick the budget can down the road.
"What I see us doing is we’re not willing to make the hard decisions now," he said. "We keep on pushing it off. We push our debt off, we increase the debt. At some point, our children are going to have to pay for our debts because we are not willing to make the hard decisions. We need a group of people that can be like that."
Baisden said he is a conservative and Republican but is running as a nonpartisan in the November general election.
Wolf, Knopp and Baisden all say their campaigns will be using social media heavily in connection with restrictions due to the pandemic, but will be trying to reach out to constituents as much as they can. The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 18.
Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that James Baisden lives in Kenai.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.