Voters at the polls in Nome. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM.

When Western Alaskans go to the polls today, Nov. 8, they’ll be casting their votes for the next governor of Alaska. Les Gara and Jessica Cook are running as the Democratic candidates against Bill Walker, the non-partisan candidate, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

One of Gara and Cook’s priorities for rural Alaska is to create better access to affordable broadband by utilizing federal funds to build up internet infrastructure in Western Alaska.

“One of our priorities is to make sure broadband internet is something that not just urban Alaskans have, but rural Alaskans have. It’s internet equity. It’s an injustice for a person in a village to pay a $300 or $500 or $700 overage charge, just to watch a circle go round and round and round on their iPhone,” Gara said.

Gara is a former Alaska legislator, serving in the State House 2003-2018. He is also a former assistant attorney general for Alaska.

Cook is a longtime educator, with more than 20 years of teaching experience in Alaska. In order to achieve equity between rural and urban Alaskans in education, local teachers are key, Cook said.

“We need to have education funding kept up with inflation. We need to have a robust grow your own educator program throughout our state. We need to make an easier pathway for teachers’ aides to become educators and become teachers in the classroom,” Cook said.

Gara would also like to fund teacher and state law enforcements’ pensions which will in turn benefit the entire state. He believes that by training and developing local hires in rural Alaska the state’s economy will grow.

“We have a shortage of mental health professionals. People in the region should be trained in those jobs and offered scholarships. We have to do loan forgiveness and we’ve done that in the past. If people train for a job that we need, whether it’s a teacher or a mental health professional, then we help them by repaying their loans if they stay in a community. And that will help members from local communities become the people who lead in their own community,” Gara said.

Gara noted that providing affordable housing in rural Alaska is going to help increase the retention rate for teachers as well as Village Public Safety Officers, or VPSOs, which are homegrown law enforcement. And to improve public safety in Western Alaska, there should be a VPSO in every single community, Gara said.

“Over 50 communities without a single police officer, not a single VPSO, where crimes happen and there’s nobody there to protect the victim. And that’s not even 20th century policing, that’s 19th century policing,” Gara said.

As this election features ranked choice voting, there are several paths to victory for the governor candidates if no one gets 50% of the votes plus one. Gara and Cook want voters to rank them first and Bill Walker and Heidi Drygas second in order to unseat current governor, Mike Dunleavy.

Dunleavy’s campaign office did not respond to KNOM’s request for an interview before Election Day. Polls are open in Nome at Old St. Joe’s until 8 p.m. tonight, Nov. 8.

Image at top: Voters at the polls in Nome. Photo by Matthew F. Smith, KNOM.

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