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Election 2020: Crowded Field of House District 6 Candidates Pledge to Focus on Rural Issues

The five candidates running to represent House District 6 all say if elected they’d prioritize the interests of Alaska’s rural population. But they differ on how they’d do that, while balancing the state’s budget and preserving the Permanent Fund dividend.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the hopefuls in the five-way race to represent the sprawling House District 6 are all focused on rural issues. The sparsely populated HD6 encircles Fairbanks, extending from the Mat-Su to the North Slope Borough, and the Central Interior to the Canadian border. Depending on who you ask, the district’s voters either lean conservative or glow bright red. Which may explain why Julia Hnilicka, of Nenana, introduced herself at a recent event in Glennallen with a sort of middle-of-the-road disclaimer.

"I am running as a Democrat, but I am an Alaskan,” she said during the Oct. 22 candidate forum sponsored by the Greater Copper Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I’m an Alaskan that owns guns. I’m an Alaskan that cares about other people and their opinions.”

Republican Mike Cronk skipped the party line and instead talked about growing up in Tok and Northway when it came his turn to talk.

“There’s so many people that don’t have a voice,” he said. “And I feel that I’m a pretty big voice and I can stand up to people and get our point across.”

Credit KUAC file photos
House District 6 candidates, from left: Vern Carlson, Mike Cronk, Julia Hnilicka, Deborah Williams Riley and Elijah Verhagen

The other three candidates all forego partisan labels – like Vern Carlson, of Cantwell.

“I’m your true nonpartisan candidate,” he said. “Never been in a political party, will never join a political party, because I just don’t believe in political parties. I believe in representing people. I’m for the people.”

And likewise, Elijah Verhagen, from Nenana, who refers to himself a conservative undeclared.

“I really, truly feel that our two-party system is damaging,” he said, “and it’s tearing and dividing Alaskans apart.”

And there’s Deborah Williams Riley, of Slana, who’s running as a nonaffiliated candidate. She didn’t show up for the Glennallen event and didn’t respond to emails and social-media queries. But her campaign materials say she favors taxing oil, term limits, a state lottery and a constitutionally protected Permanent Fund dividend. Some of which sounds a lot like Hnilicka’s pitch.

“We need to have a constitutional amendment for our PFD,” she said, “so that we can focus on the problems that we see facing our state.”

Hnilicka holds a master’s degree in rural development from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and before that she helped her dad run his river-barge business out of Nenana. She says she’d raise revenues by among other things taxing multinational resource-extraction corporations to offset the need for additional state budget cuts.

Similarly, Carlson says he’d generate revenue and jobs by taxing resource-extraction industries to promote value-added work by for example processing, instead of just exporting, raw materials.

“I’ll tax the resources that are going out raw,” he said, “and then when we get second-value work, the taxes go down.”

Carlson is an Ahtna Athabascan and longtime state Transportation Department foreman and Denali Borough School District board member. He says he wants to bring more opportunity and better health care and education into rural areas.

Verhagen agrees rural areas need more jobs. But he says his focus is cutting the state budget and holding down spending.

“I am a fiscal conservative that has worked on the budgets for years as a staffer, and we definitely need to make cuts,” he said.

Verhagen is a longtime construction worker who’s also served as an aide to four Republican legislators. He holds an undergraduate degree in political science from UAF. That’s where Cronk earned his bachelor’s degree, in elementary education. He taught classes in Tok and Northway before retiring in 2017. He’s now an Alaska Gateway School District board member.

“I got 25 years of public service as a teacher and 25 years of public service on the Fish and Game Advisory Committee,” he said.

Cronk says his experience in education and with the Upper Tanana-Fortymile Advisory Committee and will give him the tools he needs to represent the people of House District 6.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.