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In Wainwright, write-in candidates meet in surprise run-off race

Loren Holmes photo

An election run-off is heating up in the village closest to Royal Dutch Shell's exploratory work in the Chukchi Sea -- for a couple of candidates who weren't even running at first.

Oliver Peetook didn't want the job. He'd recently held office and meant to step down. The older Eddie Kagak had intended to run, but was too busy to register.

But voters in the Inupiat village of 550 people, about 720 miles northwest of Anchorage, showed some love for the former city councilmen -- two friends who work different shifts at the local power plant.

Peetook won 20 write-in votes on Oct. 2, and Kagak landed 10. With 125 votes cast in the election, however, neither candidate met the 40-percent threshold needed to win.

"I thought it was kind of cool to get a lot of support," said Peetook, a 34-year-old father of six. "I was happy."

On another positive note, both candidates were way ahead of "Ben Dover," the write-in choice of one voter. There's no one in the village with that name, said Peetok.

Even though they weren't on the ballot to start with, both Kagak and Peetok are now eager to serve another term. The run-off election is set for Oct. 16.

Whoever wins will serve the village of Wainwright during times of possibly great significance. Shell last month won federal approval to conduct preliminary drilling in the Chukchi Sea 70 miles northwest of the coastal village, the first such work in the sparsely inhabited region in two decades. The Netherlands-based oil giant intends to return next summer after the ice melts, drill much deeper, and reach undersea zones containing oil. Shell still needs federal approval before it can take that next step.

The potential for new jobs and extra income could factor into the race, though Peetook said he doesn’t plan to do much campaigning. He's spent nothing on his unintended race and plans to keep it way.

"You don't need to campaign a lot in a small town. You just shout out the window," he said.

Peetook opposes development because he reasons that the risks of an oil spill outweigh the limited benefits the state or city might get from development in federal waters. He'd rather see drilling on the gas-rich land beneath his feet, he said.

But offshore drilling is here, whether he wants it or not. If Shells finds a producible stash of oil, he wants oil pipelines to slice across city property to generate local tax revenue. "That's what we're left with," he said.

Kagak, a grandfather of three in his 50s, said he hopes to determine what city problems need fixing, then fix them. As for offshore drilling, he's OK with oil development off the coast, as long as it brings jobs and opportunities.

"I'm willing to let them go drill. It could have benefits for our people," he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex@alaskadispatch.com