Mayoral candidates speak out on Native concerns

Don Hunter

The questions fired at the two remaining candidates for mayor of Anchorage were a little different Monday at a forum sponsored largely by a group of Alaska Native organizations.

Many focused on the evolving relationship between Alaska's largest city and people who live in the state's rural areas but depend on goods and services that flow through Anchorage. Others brought up issues about Anchorage's large and growing Native population, a segment of the community with particular interests, skills and needs.

Should Native languages be taught in public schools? How should the next mayor address homelessness? How can the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska's largest Native community, make Native people feel more welcome on its streets?

Eric Croft and Dan Sullivan took those and a dozen other questions at an hour-long forum at ChangePoint Church. Dozens of people came to listen as the runoff election campaign moved into its final week before the May 5 vote.

Sullivan said his goal would be to make all people feel welcome and respected in the city. "Our job is to recognize that all people have dignity, all people have rights," and a Sullivan administration would "apply that across the board," he said.

He suggested creating a welcome center to serve as a "one-stop shop," where new arrivals in Anchorage can get information and help in finding jobs, finding housing and learning where schools are.

Croft said he would reach out. "The next mayor needs to be proud of being the mayor of the largest Native village in the state," he said.

"We want them (Native and rural residents) to be here shopping, we want them to be here for (the Alaska Federation of Natives convention)," he said, adding that he likes the work Cook Inlet housing is doing in cooperation with the city and private foundations in upgrading and building new low income housing for rural residents migrating to Anchorage.

Another question asked if the candidates planned to keep a rural adviser on their staffs, and about Native representation in the city work force and police department.

"I absolutely will keep a rural adviser," Croft said. "That's a measure of respect."

Croft said he would work to increase minority hiring in the police department and other city agencies. "I'll emphasize to (the police chief) and to all my staff that we need to hire from across the broad spectrum of Alaska."

Sullivan said he doesn't talk about specific city jobs during campaigns. "But do I recognize the need to have a deep connection with our rural communities and with our in-town Native population? Absolutely."

He would support an advisory group on Native issues, and said ways need to be found to get young Native students on a career path to law enforcement jobs, starting as early as junior high school. "Let people know, if you want to be a police officer, here's how you do it," Sullivan said.

What about improving public safety in low income areas?

"It's unfortunately true that our low income areas are oftentimes our high crime areas," Sullivan said. "The best way to deal with that is to make sure we have a stronger presence in those areas. More community policing. More direct policing toward the hot spot crime areas."

Croft applauded a program that put police officers in schools, "not to arrest but to know what's going on. To hear and listen."

He advocated extending that to summer months, putting the same officers on the streets in those neighborhoods to keep a finger on the pulse of communities when school is not in session.

After years of holding their annual convention in Anchorage every year, the Alaska Federation of Natives a few years ago voted to hold the event in Fairbanks in alternate years. What can the next mayor do to entice the AFN, the largest Native organization in the state, to meet in Anchorage every year?

Croft said the mayor can be a sort of ambassador to the rest of the state.

"It's going into rural Alaska and talking about how important it is to Anchorage," he said. "I think for too long Anchorage took (AFN) for granted."

Sullivan said he'd like to make Anchorage too much fun to stay away from.

"Literally, when AFN is here, turn downtown into a citywide festival," he said. "Let's make sure that skating rink at the town center is active and open ... so that families could go out and enjoy that." He said the city could open Central Middle School gym for basketball for a night when AFN is in town.

Croft said he's "very much a supporter" of having Native languages taught in Anchorage schools. "We need to remember our diversity is our strength," he said.

Sullivan supported finding more ways to teach Native culture in schools but stopped short of advocating teaching Native languages in all schools. He said the district's new Native charter school is "a great step."

"We have to understand of course that resources are limited, but I think in every classroom almost we can find a way to enhance at least cultural knowledge."

Another question noted that a disproportionate number of the city's growing homeless population are Natives. What can the next mayor do about homelessness?

"All too often the discussion of homelessness leaves out the word compassion," Croft said. "It's a mixture of solutions," including continuing programs like Safe Harbor that allow homeless families a safe transition into better living situations and other programs providing treatment for those who need it.

Sullivan said while on the Assembly he supported tax credits to developers for construction of affordable homes and apartments. "And then the city can play a big role in making sure there's social service grants for those entities that are doing that good work," he said, such as Catholic Social Services, Brother Francis Shelter and the Salvation Army.

And what about Della Brown? another questioner wanted to know. Do you know that name? Brown was a Native woman who was raped and murdered in 2000. The man accused of killing her was acquitted but has since been charged with murdering another woman.

"I served two years as a municipal prosecutor," Croft said, "and served on the STAR board, Standing Together Against Rape, and I do know. And we need to do a lot better on how we take care of our residents."

Sullivan was blunt. "Della Brown was murdered and raped and the gentleman that we think did it, even though the courts didn't agree, got loose and killed another woman. That's unacceptable."

Upcoming events Here are some upcoming events as the mayor's runoff campaign winds down: • Thursday, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., a debate sponsored by AARP at Central Middle School, 1405 E St. • Thursday, 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., interviews taped earlier are scheduled to be shown on KAKM, Channel 7.