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Tone of Fairbanks chamber forum draws criticism

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Posted: Thursday, November 1, 2012 11:49 pm | Updated: 11:52 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — The last candidate forum for House candidates before Tuesday’s election left some people, including a Democratic Party district official, complaining that several audience questions were intended to malign Democrats.

The business-centric Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce hosted the Tuesday forum for several candidates at the Carlson Center and changed the format this year to take more questions from the audience. Those questions were in addition to questions submitted in advance from chamber sponsors.

It was the audience questions, which were handed to moderator Lorna Shaw, that drew the criticism that they appeared to be tailored to embarrass Democratic candidates.

Shaw, who is chairwoman of the chamber’s board of directors, said the chamber didn’t sponsor any of its own questions.

“The questions we asked were a fair representation of the ones we received,” she said. “They really were reflective of who was in the audience. We asked 11 questions and received 34. We covered all but maybe two relevant topics.”

Shaw said she rephrased some questions to be more diplomatic.

Many of the questions seemed to be focused toward Rep. Scott Kawasaki, including one that asked him whether he could be an effective leader if he didn’t own property. Kawasaki lives in the house in which he grew up. 

David Pruhs, Kawasaki’s Republican opponent for District 4, called the question inappropriate.

After the forum, Kawasaki said he was bothered by the tone of the questions, saying he felt it didn’t help voters make an informed decision about the candidates on important issues. He said most voters don’t fall under particular parties and it would have been useful if the questions hadn’t either.

“I could just say this: I’ve been a member of the chamber for a decade, and they typically lean right as an organization. That’s well known, and that’s understandable,” he said. “I had really hoped that we could have stayed on pro-small business, pro-development issues, instead of talking about political parties.”

Patrice Lee, the House District 2 chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party, sent an email to the chamber to complain about the tone of the event.

“I’m fine with the chamber supporting any candidate they want, but the event should not be billed as politically neutral and then have questioning proceed as it did, especially with regard to Rep. Scott Kawasaki,” she wrote. “The chamber can be its very best when we are a ‘Fairbanks First’ community, in all of its diversity.”

The chamber bills itself as a non-partisan body, but it does take positions on political issues, including endorsing the governor’s controversial plan for cutting oil taxes.

“When you look at the makeup of the chamber, certainly our members are partisan but our core issue is to support businesses,” Shaw said. “Does that align with any particular party? Sometimes, but not always. At the end of the day the chamber is going to work with whoever is elected.”

Shaw said she would like to create a “more formal process for screening questions.” And she invited people to send their feedback and advice for improving the forum.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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