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AFN urges Alaskans to drop party affiliation

Kyle Hopkins
Marge Baker is hugged by her son, 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker, after he gave the keynote address on the opening day of the AFN conference Thursday, October 20, 2011, at the Dena'ina Center. In his speech, Baker paid tribute to his mother, whom he described as his role model for the way she raised her family and battled cancer.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
One-year-old Emma Nashookpuk took to the stage as the Wainwright Dancers performed on Wednesday evening, October 19, 2011, during Quyana Alaska I, which is part of the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention being held at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod champion John Baker signs an autograph for Augusta Reimer.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
The Wainwright Dancers entertained Wednesday evening, October 19, 2011, at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention being held at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

Are you a registered Democrat? A Republican?

The board of directors for the Alaska Federation of Natives -- the nonprofit representing indigenous people in nearly 180 communities across the state -- recommends dropping your party affiliation. At least on paper.

A draft resolution proposed by the board at this week's convention at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage calls on voters, and Alaska Native voters in particular, to switch their registrations to "undeclared."

Undeclared voters can vote for either a Democrat or a Republican in primary elections, the board argues, "and thereby vote for the candidates that most support their views and standings on the issues."

Former AFN President Byron Mallott said he supports the proposal, which would allow voters to participate in the closed Republican primaries which typically favor more conservative candidates.

"Very conservative ideologies scare the hell out of us, because of our circumstance," Mallott said, emphasizing that he was speaking for himself and not all Alaska Natives. "Because of the range of issues that affect us ... I hope it passes with a huge vote."

Delegates will vote on the proposed resolution and about 50 others on Saturday, the final day of the three-day annual convention. AFN resolutions are nonbinding but signal the collective will of the state's largest association of Alaska Natives.

One unofficial theme at this year's convention is a blooming recognition that efforts to re-elect Sen. Lisa Murkowski proved the Native vote and unrestricted Alaska Native corporation spending can sway an election.

Fairbanks Republican Joe Miller defeated Murkowski in the primary only to lose to the incumbent in the general election after an unprecedented write-in campaign waged at last year's AFN convention and across the state.

In Alaska, any registered voter can choose the primary ballot that includes Democrats, members of the Alaskan Independence Party and Libertarian candidates. Only registered nonpartisan, undeclared and Republican voters can choose the Republican primary ballot, according to the Division of Elections.

"It may be in this day and age just an urban myth that most Alaska Natives are registered Democrats," Mallott said. "For example, I've been registered undeclared for at least a dozen years."

Alaska Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich said there could be an unexpected benefit to the proposal by AFN's 37-member leadership.

"Rural Alaska voter turnout has always been low in the primary," Ruedrich said. "This might increase voter turnout, which is good -- gives them one more reason to potentially vote."

Otherwise, Ruedrich said the change would have little impact, given that there are relatively few registered Democrats in rural Alaska and only a portion of those are Alaska Native.

Alaska Democratic Party Chairwoman Patti Higgins said the closed Republican primary is moving the Republicans "toward the most extreme voices in their party."

But the proposal by the AFN board is not the solution, she said. For example, only registered Democrats can hold office within the state party organization, and voters would lose that ability if they switch affiliation.

"People ought to be able to vote for and support whoever they want to, without changing or hiding who they are," Higgins said.

TIME TO REPLACE COLUMBUS DAY?

Among the other proposals scheduled for a vote this week at AFN: A call to abolish Columbus Day.

"It is unconscionable for the United States of America to celebrate and honor a person of such character of child molestation, degradation of women, genocide and enslavement of people," says a draft resolution proposed by the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents.

The association is asking Alaska's congressional leaders to propose a national ban on Columbus Day celebration and replace it with a "holiday honoring the great Native American leaders who contributed to this country."

DON YOUNG EYES ALASKA NATIVE REPLACEMENT

U.S. Rep. Don Young plans to run for re-election in 2012 and 2014, a spokesman said Thursday.

That said, the 78-year-old Republican is already thinking about who ought to replace him when it's time to step down.

"I have to say that the Lord's been good to me. ... But I also recognize maybe he will come down and reach for me some day," Young told the crowd Thursday. "The devil may reach from below too. I may be stretched, I do not know," he joked.

"But I would be no more prouder in my life than to have a Alaska Native be the United States congressman," Young said to loud applause.

Did he have anyone in mind?

Young said later that he tried to recruit 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker of Kotzebue.

"John says, 'No way you're going to get me in involved in politics,' " Young said.

Young said he wasn't referring to any one candidate.

"I never pick who runs anyway, so I'm not endorsing anybody," Young said in an interview. "I think with all the ladies around in the Native community, there's some tremendously bright women and some very bright men."

KITKA WARNS OF FUNDING CUTS

Dissatisfied with a promised federal overhaul of subsistence hunting and fishing management in Alaska, AFN President Julie Kitka told the crowd that federal law must be changed to provide what's called a "Native-plus-rural" priority.

That would mean that Alaska Natives who move to cities would still get a preference when it comes to subsistence hunting and fishing on federal land. It would require an act of Congress.

Kitka also warned of looming cuts to programs that serve Alaska Natives as pressure grows to reduce the federal deficit.

"Funding for the wide array of services essential to the welfare and success of Native Americans, including Alaska Natives, has never been adequate to meet the needs of our people," Kitka told the crowd. "Cuts to funding that are anticipated as the Congress deals with this is nothing short of another form of termination by the United States."

Follow updates of the AFN convention from reporter Kyle Hopkins on our rural blog (adn.com/thevillage) and on Twitter (twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins). Call him at Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

Keeping up with AFN

The annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention continues today and Saturday at the Dena'ina Center. It's open to the public. The event is also being broadcast live on GCI cable, ARCS and 360 North, streamed at nativefederation.org and broadcast live on KNBA 90.3 FM.


By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News