SEN. CON BUNDE: Visiting 16-year-old of Klukwan says his remarks made her cry.
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: February 25, 2004)
JUNEAU -- A 16-year-old Haines girl is telling lawmakers that Anchorage Republican Sen. Con Bunde made her cry by telling her "he didn't care if the rural towns die out."
Katharina Harrop, a junior at Klukwan School, said Bunde offended her with that and other comments when she spoke to him after Bunde gave a speech to school officials in Juneau.
"It really hit me," Harrop said.
Bunde, known for his bluntness as well as a wry, sharp-edged sense of humor, appeared a bit chagrined by the high schooler's charges. He said that she took his words out of context and that he didn't mean to make her cry.
On Tuesday morning Harrop wrote a letter describing the incident and walked the Capitol with copies in hand, stopping off to deliver it in the offices of all 60 legislators.
"I was shocked that an elected official would say this," she said in her letter.
Bunde said it all started when he gave a speech Sunday to the Alaska Association of School Boards, which was meeting at a Juneau hotel.
Schools across Alaska are lobbying the Legislature for money to help with a budget crisis that could mean teacher layoffs and an end to school sports. Bunde, an education policy leader in the Legislature, said he told the school board members the state would need to start spending earnings of the $28 billion Permanent Fund.
That would mean smaller dividend checks than if the fund were left alone. Harrop said she feels the fund would be endangered.
Bunde said Harrop approached him after the speech, upset about what would happen to the annual Permanent Fund dividend checks. She "was very emotional," he said, talking about the dividend checks.
"Her tears were, I thought, about the Permanent Fund dividend and the fact it might be diminished," Bunde said. "Apparently that's very important for her family."
Speaking to her briefly as he was leaving the room, Bunde said the conversation turned to how important the dividend was in Alaska's small communities.
Bunde said he told her small towns have come and gone in Alaska over the years, as economic conditions have changed. He didn't deny telling her he didn't care if rural towns die out.
"I think the more complete statement was, I can't ask one part of the state to subsidize small towns so they can continue to exist if they aren't financially viable," Bunde said, adding he doesn't want towns to disappear.
Harrop's letter also said that Bunde told her "to move away from my community because it cannot support my school." Bunde disputes that.
"I don't ever remember saying she should move away," Bunde said.
Harrop said the local community does a lot to support its school and that's one of the points she wanted to make by circulating the letter at the Capitol.
This isn't the first time a state legislator has drawn public outrage from a high school student. In the 2002 legislative campaign, a student representative on the Anchorage School Board said in a television advertisement that then-Anchorage Republican Sen. Dave Donley had been rude and abusive during a visit from school officials. Donley lost the election.
Harrop said she was in Juneau to represent Klukwan School at the Chatham School District Leadership Conference. She is with of a group of school board members talking to legislators about school needs and accomplishments.
Klukwan is about 15 miles from Haines, which also has its own schools. Harrop lives in Haines but attends Klukwan School, which has 45 students, from pre-school through high school. She said she is one of two members of the junior class.
News of Harrop's letter came as a surprise to Tom Keough, a teacher and student council adviser at Klukwan School. He described Harrop as a good student and somewhat of an activist, who has "pretty strong feelings about things."
So does Bunde.
"My style of communication is, I'd rather be forthright and realistic. The easy thing would have been to tell her, sure, sure you can have whatever you want and go away kid. Just kind of mollify her," Bunde said. "That's not my style. Nor was it my intent to intimidate or frighten her. But apparently I have."
Reporter Sean Cockerham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.