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Joaqlin Estus

Last year Alaskans voted to have open primaries and ranked choice voting. The first run through of the new process is underway in a special election to fill the position of Alaska’s sole Congressional representative.

There are 48 candidates to pick from in the special election. Four of those candidates are Alaska Native candidates. Ballots must be postmarked by or before June 11.

The top four candidates’ names will go on the ballot in an August election. Voters will rank their choices as first, second, third and fourth. The winner will be the person who gets 50 percent plus 1 of the votes. 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.

The winner of this election will fill the remainder of Don Young’s term, which ends in January. Another election will be held to pick someone to fill the next 2-year term, which begins in January.

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Don Young's legacy in Indian Country and beyond

Speaking at a Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska virtual forum, the four Alaska Native candidates shared their views on their priorities in addressing issues if elected.

The Alaska Native candidates include Laurel Foster, Cupik, nonpartisan. She grew up in Alaska and 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 and 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.

Foster said public safety and access to fair and equitable healthcare are at the forefront of issues facing Alaskans.

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)

“And then climate change is something I think should be a focus. However, I think that if we focus on trying to stop climate change we're setting ourselves up for failure, ‘cause climate change is coming. There are things we can do to mitigate those issues, but we need to find ways to actively address climate change, identify how it's going to affect our communities within Alaska, and find ways that we're able to mitigate climate change as we're experiencing it. I think that affordable, renewable and efficient energy production within rural Alaska is an important issue.”

“One of the things I'm running, my campaign slogan if you will, is people over politics. And I think that we really need to get back to a place within our political environment where we are focusing on the needs of the people, not the political agendas that are being pushed because of money or things of that nature. “

Alaska has some unique issues, Foster said, “one of those being the missing and murdered Indigenous people initiative. I'll tell you, my brother is still a missing person. It'll be 20 years this year. That's an issue that is close to my heart and, and finding ways that we can improve our systems between law enforcement agencies and the different agencies that we work with to ensure that data collection is appropriate and accurate.

Also, Foster said, “I think it's important that whoever is elected is able to ensure that the (Native) voice is not only brought to the table, but heard and addressed, in a respectful way and ensuring that all voices within Alaska are heard, but definitely the voice that I feel has been silenced for a long time.”

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 “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).

“I think we need to get big money out of politics,” Notti said.

The 2010 Citizens United court ruling reversed finance restrictions and allowed corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections. Notti said after the ruling, “the first 10 years, over $4.4 billion was spent on politics. That’s six times the amount of money that the Democrat and Republican parties raise. And that weakens the system. The parties build a platform based on representatives from around the state and that's what they work for. When big money comes in they only have one interest their interest, and that's why they put millions, hundreds of millions into politics. And they're all special interests and that's not good for our government.

“The environment, I think, drastically needs attention. In Alaska we're losing our shorelines in the Northwest and West, (with) salmon not showing up in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. We spend millions of dollars on repairing roads from permafrost damage. That's from rising temperatures. (Melting permafrost) also threatens the gas line or oil line.”

Notti said he’d work with the Democratic caucus, but “you have to work with the other party (too). Alaska has only one representative. So you have to build relationships with everybody that you can, dealing on the issues you're interested in that affect Alaska. You have no enemies, you have disagreements, but that doesn't make you an enemy. So you have to get along with people. And with only one representative, everything depends on your personal relationships. Whether you can convince people that you have a worthwhile cause or not.” So, he said, building relationships and making issues of Alaska known to others would be a top priority for him.

Former lawmaker 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 on leave from her position as 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)

Peltola told KYUK reporter Olivia Ebertz, “I think all Alaskans are facing a very daunting 9 percent inflation rate this year and we're facing daunting energy prices for the upcoming winter. This most recent winter, 2022, was no picnic. It was very cold weather and we all paid a lot for our home heating.

“I think reauthorization of the Magnuson and Stevens act (governing North Pacific fisheries) is a priority. It's been a priority for a number of years, and I think we just have to get extremely serious about it because we don't have 10 years to wait on the fish issue,” Peltola said.

“When it comes to energy, I think defining the problem, admitting the problem, is a huge first step, and then looking at what other states and regions are getting in terms of federal resources, and making sure that Alaska is receiving the same kind of benefits. I also think that in rural Alaska, something that affects every single person – and this is true as well for urban Alaska and really our nation – is substance abuse. I think we need to take a hard look at substance abuse. We've got to get serious about mental health,” she said.

As for development, “if a project is in an area where the people who live around that project are the only ones who will bear the brunt of the environmental risk, and they're not getting a commensurate economic benefit with workforce, that's a social justice issue. I do think that we do need to take another look at our permitting system because there really aren't ways to impact a project moving forward through the current permitting system we have,” Peltola said.

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.

Tara Sweeney, Phoenix, Wiring the Rez, January 31, 2020

“The member of Congress representing our state needs to understand the different layers of sort of authorities that we see governing our communities and throughout the state. That's absolutely critical. I've had that experience working within Indian affairs as assistant secretary. And I will continue that commitment on working with Alaska's tribal community to not only elevate the issues that are faced by our tribal citizens and our tribal communities but also to advocate for those interests in Congress. I think that as a state we have issues and challenges regarding our healthcare, regarding our public safety, and food security and food sovereignty. And so working with our tribal entities to address those issues with the greater Alaska population is something that I think this member of Congress has a duty to uphold.

“My campaign is focused about building bridges and bringing people together. And so as we look at the divisive nature that we see across our country and in our state we need to get back to effective leadership that brings people together. So advocating for our Indigenous people and the communities, if elected to Congress, is about advocating and educating other members of Congress about why our challenges in Alaska and why we are so unique. In addition to bringing in the leadership of our communities, the leadership of our communities and the leadership within the many layers of organizations that represent Alaska Native interests, whether they are Alaska, Native corporations, federally recognized tribes or tribal consortia, we need all of those.”

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