The largest annual gathering of Alaska Natives is a high-stakes political scene as much as a cultural event, with candidates vying for attention before thousands of delegates from distant villages -- and a coveted endorsement from a pivotal part of the electorate.
This year, the political tussling surfaced even before Thursday's start of the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage, with the unexpected nixing of a lieutenant governor's forum drawing an attack from Democrats who alleged politics was involved.
But the AFN didn't notify one of the participants, leading to last-minute shifts in the packed convention schedule.
"AFN neglected to invite me to the debate!" wrote Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan in a text message to a reporter on Wednesday, an oversight confirmed by AFN president Julie Kitka.
The mix-up -- and the fallout -- is just part of the drama on tap for the three-day event in Anchorage that will end Saturday after a potentially contentious vote on political endorsements. Bristol Bay Native Corp. has proposed endorsing U.S. Sen. Mark Begich. Sealaska Corp. and the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Southeast Alaska have proposed endorsing gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker and his running mate, Byron Mallott, who once worked for Sealaska.
The endorsement proposals will be debated in executive session, then voted on Saturday by all the delegates or their proxies, Kitka said.
AFN endorsements are rare. The only ones she could recall were for Sen. Lisa Murkowski's 2010 write-in campaign, and for Tony Knowles' successful bids for governor in 1994 and 1998.
Begich and Walker will appear during hour-long candidate forums early Friday afternoon, with a U.S. Senate forum planned for 1:30 p.m. and a governor's forum planned at 2:30 p.m. Their top opponents, former Alaska attorney general Dan Sullivan and Gov. Sean Parnell, have confirmed they'll be part of the events.
As for the canceled lieutenant governor's forum, the Alaska Democratic Party on Tuesday blasted Sullivan for "skipping" out. They claimed Sullivan didn't want to defend the record of his running mate, Gov. Sean Parnell, on Alaska Native rights.
But Sullivan said he didn't know the organization had scheduled him for a debate until Monday, when someone told him they saw it on the AFN agenda. Sullivan "immediately called Julie Kitka and informed her that I had a personal conflict," he said. "Julie apologized for the omission and was very accommodating, which I appreciate."
Sullivan has a doctor's appointment planned, said Luke Miller, spokesperson for the Parnell/Sullivan campaign.
Kitka said the invitation was supposed to be emailed but Sullivan never received it. She accepted full responsibility and said there was no hidden agenda.
"I've heard that it's disrespect to the Native community and (that) Mayor Sullivan did not want to participate in the candidate's forum. And that is absolutely incorrect," she said. "We had a glitch in our invitation process; therefore, he did not get the formal invite for that."
Asked by a reporter whether he couldn't reschedule his appointment and attend the forum, Sullivan replied: "I have no problem debating issues with my friend Byron and I am glad we will have additional opportunities."
Sullivan said he has twice debated Mallott, a Native leader and former AFN president. Sullivan plans to debate Mallott three more times before the Nov. 4 general election, including on Alaska Public Media Wednesday, in Juneau Oct. 30 and at the Mat-Su Business Alliance on Halloween.
Zack Fields, spokesman for the Alaska Democratic Party, said he stands by his press release. He said AFN happens each year with political forums as regular events, and Sullivan should have known he'd be asked to debate Mallott.
With the lieutenant governor forum canceled, AFN is giving the candidates 10 minutes of floor time for speeches. Mallott will present at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. Sullivan will present at 1:35 p.m. on Saturday.
What about the U.S. House race, which is suddenly getting national press after longtime Rep. Don Young made inflammatory comments about suicide at a high school event and allegedly threatened challenger Forrest Dunbar before a Kodiak debate?
Young, one of the nation's longest-serving congressmen, announced in mid-September that he'll participate in three debates with Dunbar. AFN wasn't one of them. Left to go are the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce forum on Tuesday and the Alaska Public Media debate on Oct. 30.
Dunbar, a young lawyer from Cordova running in his first race, managed to get some floor time at AFN as well. He'll have 10 minutes before delegates at 1:45 p.m. on Saturday.
Young will present at the event on Friday at 11:30 a.m., receiving the 20-minute window given to members of the state's congressional delegation.
Dunbar had hoped the schedule juggling would allow for another debate with Young, but that isn't scheduled.
"We'd be happy to have it," Dunbar said.
Reporter Lisa Demer contributed to this article.