Alaskan actress and activist Diane Benson mounts campaign for office

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Diane Benson of the Tlingit Nation recently announced her candidacy as a Democratic contender for the office of Alaska’s lieutenant governor. Her announcement was made at a Democratic club luncheon in Anchorage.

Living in Alaska most of her life, Benson was born in Yakima, Wash. She has held a variety of jobs, community positions and advocacy roles over the years and has taught classes at the University of Alaska. Benson is well-known for her one-woman play performing as Elizabeth Peratrovich, an early advocate of civil rights in Alaska in the 1940s. Benson holds a starring role as Peratrovich in the recently released PBS production, “For the Rights of All.”

Benson has mounted previous campaigns in Alaska over the last few years. She once ran for the governor’s office and mounted a formidable campaign for Alaska’s only seat in the House of Representatives in 2006. Running against long-time incumbent Congressman Don Young, she won an impressive 40 percent of the vote. Ethan Berkowitz, with the full backing of the Democratic Party and with greater resources did no better in 2008 at a time when Young was plagued by rumors of corruption.

Though excited by the prospect of being lieutenant governor, Benson voiced regrets that she could not run again for the congressional seat. As quoted by the Anchorage Daily News, “The reality is that it takes an enormous amount of effort and sacrifice, especially for a person who doesn’t have individual wealth, to run a congressional campaign.”

Benson has experience and contact with a number of significant constituencies. Her extensive public service work had put her in contact with veterans’ groups, but her more recent experience as the mother of an injured soldier has brought veterans’ issues home. Her son, Latseen, lost both legs as the result of a roadside bomb in Iraq. Subsequently, Benson spent time with her son and visiting with other veterans hospitalized in Germany and Walter Reed Medical Center.

Her experience as the first female driver of a cement mixer during the construction of the Alaska pipeline and union member adds to her background and is often sited as proof of her understanding of the needs of her varied constituents. Her list of past and current associations includes the Alaska Native Sisterhood (a civil rights organization), the National Congress of American Indians, a role as consultant for the National Museum of the American Indian, veteran’s groups, the Teamster’s Union, and arts and film related organizations to name a few.

Benson hopes to focus on “Protecting our citizens and working with government to diversify our economy in creative ways.”

A primary focus for protections of Alaskans are proactive measures to curb domestic violence. “The numbers are horrendous,” and Benson said lots of attention is being brought to Alaska’s statistics. Alaska holds the highest rates for forcible rape and domestic violence in the nation. As reported from the luncheon by the Alaska Mudflats blog, Benson noted that Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s plan fails to address the cause.

“We don’t just need more arrests and more shelters,” she said. “We need it to stop.”

Benson advocates that education and other measures are needed. As reported in Mudflats, she calls for “supporting drug and alcohol treatment, addressing wage equity, affordable child care, and good mental health treatment.”

Benson is alert to the many other Alaska issues including global warming and the new proposed gas line. Benson, as others before her, notes that all issues around rural Alaska law enforcement also require more attention.

After her relatively good run against Young in 2006, Benson may again gain meaningful support from the rural and Native population, veterans groups and workers. So far, she is the only Democrat to throw her hat in the ring. There are two Republican hopefuls, current Lt. Governor Craig Campbell, who was appointed by former governor Sarah Palin on her retirement, and Alaska state representative Jay Ramras of Fairbanks. The primaries will take place in August.