Changes abound in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – As Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin continues her quest for the vice presidency, things are shifting in the 49th state. Shortly after the mayor and the school superintendent of Alaska’s “biggest village” asked for emergency measures for hundreds of Native families moving into the city, Palin’s rural adviser turned in her resignation stating that an Alaska Native should serve in her position. And the traditionally Republican state of Alaska may be becoming “bluish.”

On Sept. 29, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (a Democrat who is running for Ted Steven’s seat in the Senate) and Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau wrote to Palin, asking her to establish an emergency task force in response to the large influx of students from the “bush” into Anchorage and other cities around the state. The mayor and the superintendent expressed concerns about the problems that will come about as village schools decrease in size; they also asked for help in addressing the pressure on services in Alaska’s cities, stating in their letter that a “prosperous and culturally diverse” Alaska depends on having thriving communities in both rural and urban areas of the state.

The mayor and the superintendent received a response from the governor’s office a few days later. Instead of adopting their suggestion for an emergency task force to look into the migration of rural Alaskans to the cities, Palin suggested that Begich and Comeau make their concerns known to a legislative committee. The Alaska state Legislature is not currently in session.

Comeau hopes that the state will eventually become part of the conversation as she and the mayor work to prepare Anchorage to help the arriving families. Begich responded by e-mail that he is not satisfied with the governor’s response.

He stated that he has “met with about a dozen providers of various social services ... and most of these officials expressed considerable frustration with a lack of state support or even attention to the issue of rural migration. The preliminary information we’ve received is that hundreds of rural families are moving to Anchorage.”

The mayor is concerned about meeting the needs of the new Anchorage residents, from food assistance and mass transit to affordable housing. Begich named high energy costs and the lack of jobs and economic opportunities as primary reasons for rural villages’ decreasing populations. He expects there will be more conversations with state officials and that the emigration will be a topic at the upcoming Alaska Federation of Natives convention, currently planned for Anchorage. According to Begich, the AFN board is meeting to discuss the out migration with state officials at the start of their convention in late October.

Representatives of key service-providing agencies met with the mayor Oct. 16. About that meeting, he said: “We agreed on several steps: compile whatever data each agency has about increased demand for services, develop a plan to provide new services and do a comprehensive survey of rural Alaskans moving here to find out exactly why they are making the move.” The mayor and others working on the issue have formed an informal task force to focus on the issue and better meet the needs of these new Anchorage residents.

In the meantime, other changes are taking place in the state and in the Palin administration. Rhonda McBride, who served as Palin’s rural adviser, recently turned in her resignation, saying that she felt an Alaska Native should serve in the position. McBride has been quoted in several news sources as saying she has met many Alaska Natives who she considered better qualified to speak for rural residents, especially in this difficult time. Her resignation will be effective before the end of October, several days before the national election.

And while the McCain campaign and the national polls expect Alaska to vote Republican in the presidential race, the state’s political landscape is also changing. The two longtime Republican officeholders in the U.S. Senate and House are facing strong challenges from Democratic opponents. Both Stevens and Rep. Don Young have suffered from recent and unresolved allegations of wrongdoing in office.

Young’s weakness began to show during the last election cycle when his last opponent, Diane Benson of the Tlingit Nation, garnered 40 percent of the vote. Benson failed to win her party’s nomination this time around; but with the new allegations in the air, Young’s new adversary, Ethan Berkowitz, is gaining ground and is up in the polls by several points. In the most recent polls, Begich is maintaining a slight lead against Stevens, who has held his seat longer than any other current senator.