WILLOW — Alaska unites once a year at the beginning of March to focus the state’s collective attention on dog teams running from Willow to Nome in The Last Great Race. Despite the bipartisan support of canine athletes, the state’s struggles seeped into the festivities surrounding the Iditarod this year.
Just inside the doors of the Willow Community Center, former Mat-Su Borough Assemblywoman Betty Vehrs and Craig Stewart collected signatures for the Recall Dunleavy campaign. While mushers battled the warm temperatures and heavy dumping of snowfall on southcentral Alaska, signature gatherers with the recall effort similarly battled the elements to keep snow from getting sheets of recall signatures wet.
“The first thing that happened when we got out of the car is people are saying oh my god, thanks for doing this. We’re so glad,” said Vehrs. “We don’t want to see the things that made Alaska great go away because of someone’s ability to fool the people to get elected being backed by outsiders who have no stake in Alaska.”
Former Iditarod champion Jeff King made a last minute decision to allow his handler Sean Underwood to take his team 1,049 from Willow to Nome along the Iditarod trail as King had emergency surgery. Unable to race but unwilling to give up the effort to recall Dunleavy, King penned an op-ed to voice his opposition to Alaska’s 12th governor.
“We can and must make a switch in Alaska’s leadership and successfully remove Gov. Dunleavy from office,” wrote King. “No-bid contracts smell like a dog lot in springtime. He’s taken the easy way out on every occasion, striking off lines in a budget instead of finding solutions. Whether it’s a lack of empathy or intellect doesn’t matter to me. It’s just poor leadership.”
Dunleavy was elected in November of 2018 after campaigning with a plan to repay lost dividend checks. In the summer of 2019, the effort to recall Dunleavy collected enough signatures to move onto the second phase of the signature gathering effort and has until the end of April to collect 71,252 signatures.
“This guy’s devastating the economy,” said Stewart.
The recall effort has sparked a battle in front of the Alaska Supreme Court, which ruled that the recall effort may move forward in collecting signatures until oral arguments begin on March 25. The recall group boasts that over 21,000 signatures have been gathered in just two weeks since booklets were distributed.
“It’s time for a new leader in the long, tough race that is Alaska’s future. Life threw me a curve ball this week, but my plan was that when I hit the trail this Saturday, I would be dedicating my 30th run to the recall. I’m asking you to support both of us by joining the recall effort,” wrote King.
Following Dunleavy’s election and subsequent release of his first budget on February 13, 2019, Republican legislators in Juneau divided along the issue of the Permanent Fund Dividend that Dunleavy campaigned on. Creating the House Minority Coalition made up of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, Republican legislators from the Valley have been left out of the Majority in the House of Representatives, instead aligning themselves as Dunleavy’s allies. At a town hall held prior to the start of the second half of the legislative session this January, the Alaska Republican Party handed out certificates of appreciation to each member of the Valley delegation for backing Dunleavy’s policies.
Willow musher Wade Marrs said that of the things he takes pride in about the mushing community is its diversity.
“This petition needs to be here for Alaskans. We’re for Alaska, that’s why we braved the weather and we’re going to do it,” said Vehrs.