Alaska’s largest Indigenous organization on Saturday endorsed the reelection campaigns of both U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, backing two lawmakers seen by the members as champions of Native issues.
“It’s pretty unanimous that everybody is for the two candidates,” said Jodi Mitchell, who chaired the resolutions committee at this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
Delegates at the convention endorsed the two women “because of their outstanding contributions,” said Mitchell, an executive with the Juneau-based, Native-owned Sealaska Corp.
Candidate endorsements from AFN are made only occasionally. There was no endorsement made for this year’s gubernatorial race, for example, and no endorsements were made at all in 2020.
The Peltola endorsement was likely anticipated, even by her rivals, after successive convention days in which she was honored and celebrated. Peltola, who is Yup’ik and from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, became the first Alaska Native in Congress after she won a special election in August to fill the remaining months of the late Rep. Don Young’s term.
A rock-star-like presence at the convention, she was also feted Saturday night by some real rock stars, the musicians of Portugal. The Man and Pamyua, who held a concert in her honor.
Former Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican who lost to Peltola in the August special election and who is running against her in the November general election, said the new House member’s popularity makes this the toughest campaign in her career.
“We are in Mary’s house, and I know that. And I love her dearly. I’m as proud of her as all of you are,” Palin said at a Saturday candidate forum. “Doggone it, I never have anything left to gripe about her. I just wish she’d convert on over to the other party.”
As for Murkowski – a longtime friend and ally of Peltola who told the Anchorage Daily News on Friday that the new House member is her first choice in the November House election, Saturday’s endorsement was somewhat reminiscent of an AFN endorsement made in 2010. In that year, the senator mounted what turned out to be a successful re-election write-in campaign after being defeated in the Republican primary by Joe Miller, a Tea Party-backed candidate who challenged Murkowski from the right.
This year, Murkowski is being challenged by another challenger well to her right, Kelly Tshibaka, a former member of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s cabinet. Tshibaka is endorsed by former President Donald Trump; Murkowski earned Trump’s ire by opposing him in some instances and by voting to convict him in his second impeachment trial.
Unlike 2010, this year’s election is being conducted in a new Alaska system with open primaries and ranked choice voting in the general election.
Fish and rural law enforcement get attention in House candidate forum
In the back-to-back candidate forums held at the AFN convention Saturday morning, Peltola and Murkowski outlined their plans for continued work if they are sent back to Congress.
Peltola said threats to food security – especially the collapse of salmon runs on which Indigenous Alaskans depend – was what motivated her to run for Congress in the first place. Reauthorizing and modernizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law governing seafood harvests in federal waters, is one of her top priorities, she said. She started working on that project even before she was elected in August in her role as executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
“We do need to see that that bill is reauthorized, with the recognition that we are in a different paradigm. We have a different ocean. We have different productivity levels,” Peltola said at the Saturday candidate forum.
Infrastructure deficiencies and housing shortages, problems that are especially dire in rural Alaska, came up in the debate. So did law enforcement, another service that is scarce in many rural Indigenous communities. Peltola argued – and her rivals generally agreed – that federal funding for law enforcement in the mostly Indigenous areas of rural Alaska should be more dependable, and not fluctuate widely year-to-year. She urged better support for substance-abuse treatment, tribal courts and other programs, and she described desperate conditions in villages that lack law enforcement entirely.
“We have to have law enforcement, and I don’t understand the debate that is going across the country to defund public safety,” Peltola said. “That has never been a message in Alaska. We have been begging and pleading and finding all kinds of unique and creative ways to fund public safety.”
Her opponents hit familiar themes that have become familiar during multiple candidate events throughout the campaign season.
Palin expressed her opposition to President Joe Biden’s natural-resource policies. “We have got to stop President Biden’s war on energy,” she said. Her anti-Biden comments went further. One of her priorities, if elected, she said would be to combat the “crony capitalism” that she claimed had enveloped the president’s family. “The Biden family, the links to Communist China: They need to be investigated,” she said.
Begich described himself as a “full-throated advocate” for resource development who will make “the business case for Alaska.”
“I’m running because I believe in our state’s motto, ‘North to the Future.’ And I believe that Alaska’s future is a core part of America’s future,” he said. “We’ve been tremendously blessed with mineral resources, energy resources and a unique geographic position in this world to provide national security to the rest of America.”
Libertarian Chris Bye, a Fairbanks fishing guide, described himself as “just a normal Alaskan” and argued for moving decision-making from the federal level to the local level whenever possible.
“You’ll see most of my answers to the questions today revolve around tribal sovereignty, because I believe local solutions are better than ones built upon D.C. politicians,” Bye said.
Sharp exchanges — and some points of agreement — in Senate forum
In the Senate forum, which also featured Democrat Pat Chesbro as well as Tshibaka, Murkowski emphasized her experience and what she said were the important accomplishments she has already achieved for Alaska.
“It helps to have somebody who’s boots on the ground, knows what’s going on and can move from Day One,” she said in response to a question about first priorities in the new session of Congress.
Tshibaka made critical statements without mentioning the senator’s name.
That included a swipe at Murkowski’s approval of some Biden-nominated federal officials. “I’ll prioritize responsible resource development after our Alaskan voice was used to confirm radical nominees that shut down our industries, killed our jobs and took away our voice in developing resources,” Tshibaka said.
And it included infrastructure plans for Alaska, a source of pride for Murkowski, who coauthored the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Tskibaka said funding promised to Alaska will not come “because the Biden bureaucracy has buried the money under a pile of regulations.”
Murkowski shot back, saying already $420 million had come to Alaska for rural broadband expansion alone.
In contrast to the back-and-forth with Tshibaka, Murkowski found common ground with Chesbro. Among the subjects where they found some agreement were related to climate change.
Chesbro made a plea for action, putting environmental problems into a holistic health context. “This affects the fish. This affects the storms that we see. This affects the people’s mental health as well. We need to work together to find the many ways that we need to address helping the climate become more healthy,” she said.
Chesbro cited as a specific problem the ongoing automation of weather stations in Alaska, and Murkowski agreed with her. “That is an issue, when we think to the automation as opposed to the eyes on the ground,” Murkowski said.
The changes in the region are profound, a point made when she recently visited the Bering Sea village of Unalakleet, the senator said. Elders there report that they can no longer predict the weather in ways they used to do, she said. “The traditional signals, whether it’s grass or otherwise, or when it’s safe to go out, are no longer reliable. That’s scary,” she said.
The three candidates spent much of the forum talking about Arctic issues.
Tshibaka did not mention climate change, but focused instead on national security. “We know that the truth is that the Arctic is opening up. And with the tensions increasing between Russia. . .with nations like Russia and China, we need to pay attention to this.” She said her experience working in the federal government with national security agencies made her especially qualified to advocate for strengthening “our readiness and preparedness in the Arctic.”
Murkowski also listed several Arctic security concerns, and she cited her policy accomplishments in that area. She listed her successes in getting funding for three new U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers, deployments of cutters and aircraft in the Bering Sea and northwestern Alaska, the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies — which opened this summer at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson — and expansion of the Port of Nome, among other items. She said she will continue to work to ensure that the Alaska National Guard gets additional funding.
“I’m known as the Arctic senator. I’m quite proud of that,” she said. “We’ve got much work to do.”
This article was originally published in the Alaska Beacon.