With some board members believing the red-hot U.S. Senate race has grown "overexposed," the Alaska Federation of Natives voted Tuesday to cancel a Senate candidates forum planned for Friday afternoon in Fairbanks.
The 37-member board, meeting in Fairbanks in advance of the annual AFN convention that starts there Thursday, replaced the candidate face-off with an extra hour for delegates to talk about subsistence, federation president Julie Kitka said.
"People were complaining that there's just too much jammed into the agenda and not enough open-mike time for people to have their say," she said.
The three-day convention is the state's largest annual gathering of Alaska Native leaders and village delegates. It's a can't-miss event for candidates hoping to win rural votes.
The AFN board did not call off a gubernatorial candidate forum scheduled for around the same time Friday, Kitka said.
While Alaska's U.S. senators play a direct role in sending federal funding to rural Alaska for construction and social services, Kitka said some board members felt the governor's race has been ignored compared to the Senate battle.
Indeed: In the soap opera of Alaska politics, the Senate race is this campaign season's highest-rated show. Republican Joe Miller's victory over Murkowski in the Republican primary became a symbol of anti-incumbent, tea party success, followed by Murkowski's unusual write-in bid. The race made national news again this week when Miller's security put a reporter in handcuffs after a town hall meeting, though prosecutors later said no one will be charged with anything.
The AFN election forums were scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. Friday, after a convention discussion on subsistence. That discussion has been extended, replacing the Senate match-up. The candidates for governor will now face off at about 3:30 or 4 p.m., Kitka said.
The AFN board has already picked sides in the Senate race, voting at a special session on Sept. 24 to ratify a resolution endorsing Murkowski. Delegates will decide whether to approve that resolution at the convention this week, Kitka said.
Many Alaska Native regional corporations, represented by executives on the AFN board, also rallied behind Murkowski and are injecting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Senate race through a political action committee.
Miller has criticized the support as payback for Murkowski's past support of a controversial Small Business Administration program that gives Alaska Native corporations and tribes access to no-bid federal contracts. Democrat Scott McAdams, meantime, is courting rural voters with a new campaign video featuring young Alaska Natives.
Kitka said the schedule change was not made out of concern Murkowski would lose ground to competitors at the forum.
She said the board was instead reacting to complaints from the previous year that the crowded AFN agenda doesn't leave enough time for delegates to give their feedback.
Only an hour of open-microphone time was scheduled to follow reports on last year's main convention theme -- subsistence -- and subsequent efforts to retool the way the federal government oversees subsistence hunting and fishing. The topic has been the subject of hundreds of hours of work since the last convention but recent recommendations from a federal review fall short of the changes Alaska Native leaders are looking for, she said.
CONVENTION BEGINS THURSDAY
The schedule change comes four days after the federation announced its agenda, highlighting the candidate forums, in a statement to the media.
But Kitka said the original schedule, planned by a convention committee, hadn't been finalized. Changes to the schedule were discussed Tuesday during an executive session, she said.
Murkowski, along with Sen. Mark Begich, Rep. Don Young and Gov. Sean Parnell were all scheduled to speak at the convention, according to the agenda provided by AFN last week.
Byron Mallott, co-chairman of Murkowski's campaign, was scheduled to speak to the crowd after Murkowski, in his role as a senior policy fellow for the First Alaskans Institute, according to the agenda.
Mallott is a regular speaker at AFN's annual conventions, Kitka said.
Along with the Senate forum, other schedule changes and speakers have been removed from the schedule to make room on the agenda, she said.
With the forum canceled, the federation will offer Senate candidates a chance to meet with individual groups of delegates from different regions around the state during the convention.
The main convention begins Thursday morning at the Carlson Center.