Les Gara says he's quitting the Alaska Legislature

Rep. Les Gara (KTUU)
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) — Veteran Anchorage lawmaker Les Gara, 55, dropped out of the race for his downtown seat Tuesday, saying it was time for him to go fishing and for someone else to carry on in his place.

Gara, a Democrat first elected in 2002 to the downtown Anchorage constituency, now labeled District 20, is leaving at the same time as Rep. David Guttenberg, a Fairbanks Democrat, also first elected in 2002.

Both districts lean toward Democrats, so the departure of the two lawmakers is unlikely to change the political make up of the House. But both men are colorful personalities in the Legislature, and the atmospherics of the House will change with their absence.

Gara has been the strongest advocate among lawmakers for improvements in foster care — probably because he was in foster homes as a child. This year the Legislature passed his foster care reform bill.

He said he’s not worried about who will take up that fight — foster care youth and “alumni” have become empowered in their own right, he said

But on other big subjects, Gara has fizzled or been only partly successful. He’s sought more taxes on the oil industry — a losing battle in an overwhelmingly pro-development legislature. Gara said it's clear why there's little appetite for imposing new taxes on the industry.

“The oil industry has a huge foothold in the state,” Gara said. “The only times we changed oil taxes in Alaska is after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Veco corruption scandal. That’s how hard it is.”

Gara also says the state is too cheap when it comes to funding education, an issue that’s partly eluded him.

In his departing newsletter to his district, Gara cited his accomplishments, and said that most legislators — Democrats and Republicans — worked to overcome the bipartisan split. But he also criticized a few Republicans, though not by name, for being petty. Some would not pass his bills unless he took his name off them, he said.

Former Republican House Speaker Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) said Gara is right about having to remove his sponsorship of bills, but wrong about the cause.

“He thought it was OK for him to just rip on you or other legislators on any particular issue, but whenever it became one of his, he thought everyone ought to just join in and support him because it’s a great bill,” said Chenault, who was House speaker and leader of the Republican majority for much of Gara’s career. “Folks like to work together, and Les just didn’t work very well with people.”

Chenault, first elected in 2000, is retiring this year too.

Gara said he was “fine” with removing his name from a bill to pass legislation.

“But it’s sort of silly, sort of immature,” Gara added. “It’s the kind of conduct that makes people distrust the legislature.”

Gara was a leader in the House majority this year — the first time in his legislative career that Democrats were part of the coalition in charge of the ruling caucus. After 16 years in office, now is a good time to leave, Gara said.

“I never thought I would be in the Legislature for 20 years, and I didn’t want to be carted out on a stretcher. I wanted to work as long as I had the fire in my belly, to go in there, work hard every single day — I could probably do it another two years, but I feel it’s time to let somebody else represent the district.”

Gara had dropped big hints over the last few months that he might quit, but he still signed up for the Democratic primary. He said on social media that he would endorse a successor, but he wasn’t commenting Tuesday after three Democrats signed up for the August primary — activist and public policy expert Cliff Groh, former Democratic Party spokesman Zack Fields, and gay rights advocate and Anchorage businessman Elias Rojas.

Gara said he may return to public service if the right issues surface. In the meantime, he said, he can look back at a good legislative career.

“You have a chance to go in everyday and make a difference in the world,” he said. “And if you’re doing your job honestly, and you care, you can make the world better. And if somebody blocks what you’re trying to do, you push, and if they block again, you push harder, and eventually you get things done.”

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