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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Alaskans are facing quite the U.S. Congressional election with a packed field of 48 candidates – including a North Pole city council member named Santa Claus – and a voting process that’s been tried in this country by only one other state, Maine.

Former governor Sarah Palin joins four Alaska Natives running to fill Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat, which was held for decades by the late U.S. Rep. Don Young. He died last month at age 88. Palin, who was the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, is the best known of the candidates nationally.

All four of the Alaska Native candidates grew up in Alaska. They include Laurel Foster, Cupik, nonpartisan, who lives in Anchorage. She enlisted in the Alaska Air National Guard as a Security Forces member in 2008 then cross trained as a paralegal. She’s a senior paralegal with the Alaska Native Justice Center, where her advocacy is focused on Alaska Native Justice. She is a 2nd Lieutenant with the 168th Security Forces Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard. Foster is also vice president of the nonprofit Alaska Association of Paralegals.

Laurel Foster, candidate to fill the rest of the late U.S. Rep Don Young's term in Congress. Young died in March at the age of 88.  (photo courtesy of Laurel Foster)

Emil Notti, Koyukon Athabascan, a Democrat, lives in Anchorage. He’s a founder and the first president of the Alaska Federation of Natives. He’s described by the Native American Hall of Fame as “a force behind the land claims movement and central to the negotiations that culminated in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.” He served as president of the regional Alaska Native Doyon Corporation, and in cabinet level positions for several governors. He also served on boards of directors for National Bank of Alaska, the Alaska Railroad, and CIRI, the Alaska Native Cook Inlet regional corporation. Notti is a Navy veteran of the Korean era. He narrowly lost the 1973 election to Young.

Emil Notti, Koyukon Athabascan, in the running to fill the rest of the late Don Young's term in the U.S. Congress. (Photo courtesy of Emil Notti).

Mary Sattler Peltola, Yup’ik Eskimo, a Democrat, grew up subsistence and commercial fishing in the summers. She lives in Bethel in western Alaska. She served five terms in the Alaska House, where she revived and chaired the Bush Caucus, a non-partisan coalition of legislators representing areas off the road system. After leaving the state Legislature she worked for the Donlin Gold Mine project from 2008 to 2014 and as a state lobbyist from 2015 to 2016. Peltola is director of the Kuskokwim River Inter Tribal Fish Commission, which serves 33 tribes and works to restore the abundance of salmon returning to their spawning grounds.

Mary Sattler Peltola, Yup'ik, is a candidate to fill the rest of Don Young's term in the U.S. Congress. Young died in March at the age of 88. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

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Tara McLean Sweeney, Inupiaq, a Republican, grew up in several Arctic villages and lives in Anchorage. She’s a former vice-president of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Alaska Native company with some $3 billion in revenues. She served as co-chair of the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives. She was a special assistant in Gov. Frank Murkowski’s administration and co-chair of Republican Dan Sullivan’s U.S. Senate campaign. She worked in the Trump administration as the first Alaska Native and the second woman in history to hold the position of assistant secretary of Indian Affairs with the U.S. Department of Interior. Sweeney has served as chair of the international Arctic Economic Council representing the Inuit Circumpolar Council. She was statewide co-chair of Young’s reelection campaign.

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Alaskans will be voting in an open primary and a ranked choice voting system, a new process voters opted for in 2020. The top four vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, will go on to the general election.

Voters will rank their choices as first, second, third and fourth. If no one wins a majority of 50 percent plus 1 in the general election, the lowest vote-getter is dropped. Their votes go to the second choice shown on their ballots, and so on until one candidate gets a majority of votes. Ranked choice voting is used in several countries around the world, including Malta, Northern Ireland, India, Pakistan and throughout the English-speaking world.

A special mail-in primary is set for June 11. The winner of the Aug. 16 special election, to be certified by Sept. 2, will serve the remainder of Young’s term, which expires in January.

The regular primary is also on August 16, the same date as the special election. The regular primary and Nov. 8 general election will determine who represents Alaska in the U.S. House for a two-year term starting in January.

Palin and Peltola have filed to run for the two-year term, and Sweeney said she plans to also.

Palin was the Republican nominee for vice president in 2008. She resigned as Alaska’s governor in 2009, partway through her term. She said she could fight for the future from outside the governor’s office, where she was embroiled in disputes over ethics complaints. She previously served as mayor of Wasilla, a town near Anchorage.

Palin’s actions as governor were criticized by prominent Native rights attorneys Floyd Miller and Heather Kendall Miller. In 2008 they cited her attacks on subsistence hunting and fishing rights and tribal sovereignty, including sovereign rights under the Indian Child Welfare Act. Palin brought federal oversight of Alaska elections into play after she refused to provide Yup’ik translators at elections. She also was criticized for not appointing Alaska Natives to cabinet and other positions.

She has kept a low profile in Alaska politics since serving as governor but maintained a presence nationally, including through speaking engagements, appearances with conservative outlets and on reality TV. She also was an early supporter of former President Donald Trump, who endorsed her candidacy on Sunday.

Meanwhile, a man who years ago legally changed his name to Santa Claus also filed for the special primary. Claus, who said he has a “strong affinity” for Bernie Sanders, is running as an Independent.

“I do have name recognition,” he said with a laugh.

The Anchorage Daily News reports the race includes six Democrats, 16 Republicans, 22 nonpartisan or undeclared, two Libertarians, an American Independence Party member and an Alaska Independence Party member.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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