Highly anticipated endorsements in two hot political races topped the action Saturday at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention as the organization wrapped up three days of seminars, speeches and sometimes sensational dance.
AFN announced its endorsements of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat seeking his second term, and the "unity" gubernatorial ticket of Bill Walker and Byron Mallott. Walker, a Republican running for governor as an independent, is on the ticket with lieutenant governor candidate Mallott, a Democrat who once served as AFN president and gave up his own bid for governor.
AFN also approved a packet of 50 other resolutions that include opposition to Ballot Measure 2, the initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana; support for tribal co-management of subsistence; and a push for more education funding for all kids.
The convention, with the theme "Rise as One," drew as many as 5,000 attendees to Anchorage's Denai'ina Civic and Convention Center -- a building named in recognition of the indigenous people of the Cook Inlet region.
The endorsement decision came after a 1 1/2-hour closed-door session limited to credentialed delegates.
AFN rarely endorses candidates. President Julie Kitka said she recalled endorsements in 2010 of Sen.Lisa Murkowski and for Tony Knowles' bids for governor in the 1990s. The organization is not taking a position in the U.S. House race between Republican Rep. Don Young and Democrat Forrest Dunbar.
Greg Razo, an AFN board member who chairs its resolutions committee, said that Alaska Native organizations are each allotted a certain number of delegates based on population figures from 1971, when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed Congress.
The only endorsements considered were the proposals to endorse Begich and Walker/Mallott. There were no proposed resolutions backing Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan or Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, who is seeking re-election.
"The purpose of the executive session was really to have a full and fair debate over the issue of whether there should be endorsements of political candidates and if so whether the particular resolutions offered would be accepted or not," said Razo, an attorney and vice president for Cook Inlet Region Inc.
That debate happened, he said, declining to give particulars. One delegate, Fred Eningowuk of Shishmaref, said Begich's position on subsistence swayed the crowd. Sullivan has been sharply criticized for appealing a court case that was part of the long-running Katie John litigation over aboriginal subsistence rights.
Candidate forums Friday laid the groundwork for Saturday's AFN endorsements, said delegate Julie Roberts-Hyslop of Tanana.
"We aired our differences in executive session and came out as one," she said.
Bristol Bay Native Corp. submitted the 3 1/2-page resolution backing Begich. The resolution noted that he is a "born and raised Alaskan, who, like his father before him, Congressman Nick Begich, understands the unique challenges of rural Alaska."
The resolution noted that Begich travels extensively throughout rural Alaska, to hubs and to small villages, to hear from the people "in their homelands."
He is against the proposed Pebble mine in an area of rich salmon habitat. He secured a reauthorization of the Indian Health Service. He serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, as does Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, giving Alaska two seats on it.
While Begich has stressed that two senators from the same party would never secure two seats on that powerful spending committee, Murkowski on Saturday reframed the issue to give Sullivan a subtle boost.
In her speech to AFN, made before the endorsements, she didn't talk directly about her support of Sullivan, for whom she has appeared in a political ad. Instead, she said she could gain an important position if Republicans take over the U.S. Senate. The GOP and conservatives including the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers have targeted Alaska's seat in an effort to win the Senate.
If that happens, Murkowski told the AFN crowd, "I am going to be in a position to chair the appropriations subcommittee on the Interior Department." That panel oversees the budgets for the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "This is critically important for us," she said.
For his part, Sullivan, from a wealthy Ohio family of industrialists, has been battling questions about his Alaska bonafides. His wife is Julie Fate Sullivan, part of a prominent Alaska Native family from the Interior, but he first moved here in 1998, left in 2002, and only returned in 2009 as attorney general. He later served as natural resources commissioner.
The Sullivan campaign announced during AFN that he was endorsed by Sen. Lyman Hoffman, the Bethel Democrat. AFN co-chair Tara Sweeney is also his campaign co-chair.
The Walker/Mallott endorsement was proposed by Sealaska Corp., the Native corporation for Southeast, the nonprofit Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and Southeast Alaska villages. Mallott is from Yakutat and served previously as its mayor as well as Juneau mayor and Sealaska president.
"Bill Walker and Byron Mallott have identified a clear alignment on issues of importance to Alaska," the resolution said.
Besides the endorsements, AFN passed 50 other resolutions Saturday, establishing priorities and policies for the coming year. Most covered perennial topics of subsistence, education, health, public safety and the economy but some had new twists.
Here is some of what AFN is seeking through the resolutions:
• Alaska Native self-determination in management of fishing, hunting, trapping and gathering. The resolution calls for Alaska Natives to have "a full and equal" role with the state and federal governments. This measure was one of 10 that concerned subsistence, counting a proposal for special recognition of those who worked on the Katie John litigation. The spiritual aspects of subsistence were highlighted along with its fulfillment of cultural, economic and nutritional needs.
• Reduced accidental catch of king salmon by Bering Sea trawlers targeting pollock. AFN wants a cap of 20,000 kings, a drop from the current cap of 60,000 from the trawler fleet.
• Defeat of Ballot Measure 2, the proposal to legalize and commercialize recreational marijuana. AFN says that marijuana has negative physical, mental, behavioral, educational and social consequences.
• Improved state services to protect rural elders from abuse, neglect and financial exploitation. AFN wants the state of to review its adult protective services and establish offices in regional hubs or other remote communities.
• Required screenings during health exams for domestic violence.
• More restrictive drug laws including a ban on Tramadol, a synthetic opiate, and similar drugs.
• More funding for Mt. Edgecumbe High School, the boarding school in Sitka, and a "meaningful" yearly increase in the state's base student allocation, the formula that decides school funding. The latter echoes the mantra of education activists who pushed for the increase in the last legislative session but came up short.
• Elimination of the requirement that tribes waive their sovereign immunity in order to get state funding.
• Creation of a state tourism publicity campaign that promotes Alaska Native handicrafts and art.