Republican turned Democrat runs for U.S. Senate in Alaska
Indian Country Today
Edgar Blatchford comes across as intelligent, good-natured, and funny. In an interview, he told a reporter to feel free to interrupt, saying, “I talk a lot.” When his campaign manager murmured “yes,” presumably agreeing questions are welcome, Blatchford laughingly said, “You’re not supposed to agree [that I talk a lot]!”
He’s well-spoken. As a professor and former newsman, he’s spent most of his career learning things so he can explain them to others.
At age 69 or 70 (he won’t say his age, but he was born in 1950), he’s lean and fit.
He runs long-distance marathons. And he’s competed in one of the toughest runs in the country: the 4th of July Mount Marathon Race in Seward. It’s only three miles, but 3,022 feet up a steep mountain. People scramble across loose shale, and contend with mud and sometimes snow.
Every year runners cross the finish line bleeding from cuts and scrapes. Two ended up in the hospital in 2012, the same year one runner tragically went missing and is presumed dead.
Blatchford, Inupiaq and Yup’ik, has run the Mount Marathon Race 20 times.
Now he faces another uphill climb, but in a different kind of race.
Blatchford is running for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in Alaska, a heavily Republican state. He’ll face two contenders in the primary on Aug. 18. If he wins it, he’ll face the Republican incumbent in November.
His list of degrees is impressive: a bachelor’s degree from Alaska Methodist University, a law degree from the University of Washington School of Law, a masters in journalism from Columbia University, a masters of public administration from Harvard University and another from Harvard’s Kennedy School, as well as a PhD from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
He was looking to learn more about the world and find answers. Now he’s looking to tradition to lead him. “I have a high degree of respect, the highest I can possibly or any person can give another person, and that's to the elders, the grandmas and grandpas, you know, the keepers of their traditions and cultures,” he said.
As a child, he spent time with both his grandmothers, one Yup’ik and the other Inupiaq. “...it was a more caring environment. The quest wasn't for the dollar bill. The quest was to do good for the community. It was a community spirit.” He said what friends, neighbors and family can give one another is a lot more than money can buy.
Blatchford was born in Nome, in Northwest Alaska, in 1950. His family moved to Seward, Alaska in 1960. He founded Alaska Newspapers, Inc. in 1983. He partnered with a Native regional corporation to buy six rural Alaska newspapers and later acquired two more.
Other experiences on Blatchford’s resumé include being mayor of the City of Seward and running for Lieutenant Governor in 2016. He lost in the primary. Since 1995, he’s been a University of Alaska professor. He teaches journalism, public communications, and Alaska Native Studies courses.
In 2005, Blatchford resigned as commissioner of Community and Economic Development due to conflict of interest allegations concerning his state position and his role as a board member for the regional Native Chugach Alaska corporation. He has also worked in cabinet-level positions in two Republican administrations.
In fact, the avid runner was a Republican until 2016. When asked why he switched, Blatchford said, “Most of my friends have always considered me a liberal, progressive type. In fact, they would always tell me, ‘that's not how a Republican talks.’”
“I believe in the democratic party's principles of justice, equality, and fairness,” and, he said, the Democratic party platform “addresses some of the questions in Indian Country now.”
He said since the 1970s Alaska has become the richest state in the union, “and yet we have not yet found any solutions to deal with the social ills impacting Alaskans: Alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, incarcerations, low education attainment levels, an absence of transparency and opportunities for young Natives in the [for-profit Native] regional corporations... and institutional racism in the political systems,” Blatchford said.
“I just got tired of it,” he said. “I decided I was not going to look the other way and allow another White guy to take a political office and tell me what the problem is,” then dismiss it as “Native only.”
“What the Native community needs is leadership, and what the non-Native community needs is to understand that we're all in this together.”
WHAT DO ALASKA NATIVES NEED?
He said Alaskans have had 61 years, since statehood in 1959, to try to resolve issues and “we've gotten nowhere.” He said it’s because Alaskans elect people who lack experience.
“These are issues that require firsthand knowledge, not something you get out of a book. It's something that you feel. It's something in your soul. It's in your heart. And you have the same feelings when you look at all of the disadvantaged people in the state, many of them Alaska Natives who have not shared in the wealth of the Native corporations [created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971] and in the riches of the state of Alaska.
“Well, it just plagues me,” he said.
Like so many other cities, Anchorage has homeless people. But Blatchford said people here seem to think homelessness is an Alaska Native problem.
But “where do a lot of the [homeless] people come from? From the places that have no employment opportunities...Those social ills migrate to Anchorage, Juneau,” Blatchford said.
He described a permitting system created to limit the number of commercial fishers. People who had fished for several years were eligible for a limited entry commercial fishing permit, which they could sell. Some permits gained value into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Alaska Natives have made their living from the sea for millennia, but with limited entry, villagers with no other employment options to tide them over during hard times, sold their permits.
That, Blatchford said “destabilized the economic foundations of all of the villages.” He said 19 percent of the permits in the enormous Bristol Bay fishery are locally owned. He said “81 percent of the Bristol Bay limited entry permits are permits owned by people from outside -- outside of the region and many of those outside of state. I mean, Jiminy crickets!”
He said he’ll work on solutions tailored for small Native villages, as well as urban and pro-development interests. He also wants to seek amendments to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which he says is a failed experiment. It was the subject of his doctoral dissertation.
The claims settlement act created for-profit Alaska Native regional corporations. “I didn't think it was the best way to go because it had a cut-off date. You had to be alive on December 18th, 1971 in order to be eligible for shares of stock in a Native corporation,” Blatchford said.
That leaves Alaska Natives born after that date either out in the cold or holding second-class shares. Plus, non-Natives can inherit shares, so the corporations are not fully Alaska Native.
“I think that is a huge unsettled question with the Native claims. And the only person who can settle that is someone who is an Alaska Native and is elected to Congress because I don't think that any non-Native has any weight when it comes to dealing with these social issues,” he said.
Blatchford wants to bring change to Washington, D.C., where he said the focus is on raising money to run again rather than doing the people’s work. He told Indian Country Today he’s also running to fulfill Congress’s role as a check and balance to the president.
Part of it is personal. “I was very disappointed in...candidate Trump when he referred to Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas. Frankly, I didn't care whether Warren was a hundred percent Cherokee or a half or an eighth or a 16th or 64th. I was just so proud that someone from Oklahoma would stand up and say, ‘I have Cherokee blood. I have Indian blood.’”
He said President Donald J. Trump has nominated and Congress has confirmed 200 of the nation’s 650 federal judges. “The consequences on Native Americans, Native American tribes, Native American programs, Native American voting rights, civil rights, rights to education, incarceration are most likely going to be decided by Donald Trump's appointees at some point in time.
“If we don't pay attention,” Blatchford said, “...we're going to be fighting needless battles next year, five years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now.”
Also, he said, Congress should be working to address climate change. “The epicenter of global climate change is in the rural areas of Alaska. It's on the North Slope. It's along the Yukon, along the Kuskokwim [river]. I, and in my lifetime, I, like anybody else who's been living in Alaska for even a short time, 10 years, can see that there are changes in climate.”
Campaign financing is an issue particularly important to Alaska, he said. With billions of dollars in resource development at stake, Blatchford said outside interests have too much say in Alaska elections.
“I say that when it comes to political influence and money, Alaska is the bargain basement of a discount store,” Blatchford said. “If you're a billionaire or global corporation wanting to curry favor [in Congress]…a $10,000 donation, a hundred thousand dollar donation, goes one heck of a lot further in Alaska than a state with millions of people.”
Blatchford doesn’t ask for donations and is against corporate funding for his campaign. He realizes being outspent may make it difficult to win.
“Well, if I lose, well, all I can say is...I won't say ‘die happy,’ but I can say, ‘well, I tried, you know, and I didn't compromise my principles or my beliefs,” he said.
Corrected: Blatchford is in the running against two opponents in the Democratic primary, not three. The Alaskan Independence and Republican party primaries each have one candidate running.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today based out of the Anchorage bureau.
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