What the heck, Alaska? What now? Don't be surprised by more surprises

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson at the Alaska Federation of Natives. Walker suspended his campaign and asked the convention to support former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich. (Photo by Mark Trahant)

Mark Trahant

The Alaska Federation of Natives convention is always remarkable ... but last week brought a new focus #NativeVote18

What the heck, Alaska? Think about one week of news:

  • Lt. Governor Byron Mallott, Tlingit, resigned, citing “inappropriate comments” and was replaced by Valerie Davidson, Yupik.
  • Then Davidson spoke to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. Her talk was thoughtful, warm, and she left many delegates wanting Davidson to be the next governor. But lieutenant governor works for now.
  • On Friday Independent Gov. Bill Walker, Davidson’s de facto running mate, asked to address the convention. There he announced he was suspending his campaign for governor and giving his support to Democrat Mark Begich. The math of a three-way race was impossible, guaranteeing the Republican candidate, Mike Dunleavy, an easy path to victory. “Alaskans deserve a choice other than Mike Dunleavy,” he said.
  • Walker’s announcement was historic. A politician sacrificing ambition for the greater good. He said that Alaska has a lot to lose, especially Medicaid expansion.
  • The convention gasped. Many cried. And delegates made their way to the stage to honor the governor and his legacy with song, with jewelry, with words.

So what now? One thing: The Alaska Federation of Natives convention was the center of Alaska politics last week. It's always an important meeting, but think of the last time that any state governor went to a Native meeting to make such a historic announcement? This was a singular testament to the growing influence of Alaska Natives in general and the Alaska Native vote in particular.

Now there are only a couple of weeks for Alaska voters have to forget what’s on the ballot and pick between two very different sets of visions.

“That’s what this campaign is going to be about: What’s Alaska going to look like in the future?” Dunleavy said in a debate at the AFN convention. He talked about working in rural Alaska and understanding the issues facing Native communities. He said he met his wife, Rose, in such a community and saw the need for jobs. Then he talked about mining, energy, and other development that is his Alaska future. This would mean more development even in areas that put traditional food gathering at risk. He also promises less government (and a larger payout from the state’s permanent fund to residents.)

Former Sen. Mark Begich is on the other side of just about every issue. He supports Medicaid expansion. Then he voted for what is now called Obama Care while he was in the Senate.

Medicaid has been extremely important to Alaska Natives (and the two people who ought to get a lot of credit for making it so is Gov. Walker and his now Lt. Gov. Davidson). This one federal program has insured some 44,000 Alaskans, many of them Alaska Natives, and created a sustainable revenue stream for the Indian health system. It’s telling that when Dunleavy talked about Medicaid to AFN he mentioned insurance and efficiency and other parts of the system that have no bearing on the Indian health system. He did not talk about a funding reversal would do -- and how that would be a cost borne by Native people and communities.

Will Walker’s sacrifice make a difference in this election? Is it too late? Open questions. There are probably nine ways for Dunlevy to win and only one for Begich. Four years ago, there were still a couple of months to campaign after Democrat Byron Mallott ended his bid for governor and joined the Walker ticket. This time there are days. (Four years ago Walker and Mallott won by less than 10,000 votes.)

“We have just a few weeks, two and a half, and every vote matters," Begich said.

And Dunleavy made this prediction: “There is only 18 days left, so don’t be surprised if there’s more surprises along the way.”