FAIRBANKS – For Alaska's underdog challengers trying for U.S. House and Senate, the upcoming Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention offers a crucial proving ground.
It's a must-do opportunity for incumbents and those hoping for an upset.
Native people from dozens of villages and every Alaska hub, city and borough started gathering in Fairbanks Sunday for a weeklong series of events. Things officially begin Monday with the three-day Elders & Youth conference put on by the First Alaskans Institute. Two tribal sessions are taking place, including the annual joint conference of AFN and the National Congress of American Indians and a separate tribal summit.
It all culminates with the AFN convention, which runs Thursday through Saturday and is the biggest such annual gathering of Native people anywhere in the country.
Among the highlights are the Friday afternoon candidate forums. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is set to be there, as are her three main challengers, including Joe Miller. Six years ago, he beat her in the Republican primary only to have her come back in the general election with a rare endorsement by AFN and big financial support from Alaska Native corporations.
AFN's conference is expected to draw about 4,000 people. It will be broadcast live and shown on a webcast that reaches thousands more. Hotels and other rooms in Fairbanks are all booked. Shoppers will swarm the Native art fair that this year features 170 artists and craftsman. The tourism bureau Explore Fairbanks says the event's boost to the Interior city's economy is estimated at $5.5 million.
"Obviously it is the premier event in the state every year involving Alaska Native people," said Steve Lindbeck, the Democratic candidate for U.S. House. "It's the biggest single gathering that happens in Alaska."
Lindbeck, a former journalist, Alaska Public Media executive and university vice chancellor, says he has spent much of his career traveling Alaska and telling the stories of Alaskans. Now he is the latest in a string of Democrats trying to unseat U.S. Rep Don Young, who is as deeply entrenched as they get with 43 years in office.
On the Senate side, Murkowski will be there this time as the Republican nominee, Fairbanks lawyer Miller as the Libertarian Party candidate, real estate broker and political activist Ray Metcalfe as the Democratic nominee and Margaret Stock — an immigration lawyer and retired Army lieutenant colonel — as an independent.
Candidates will be shaking hands, handing out materials, mingling with the art-tent crowd, and holding side events to extend their reach and raise money.
Murkowski's campaign is hosting a moose chili lunch on Friday at the Fairbanks Curling Club. Stock says she will be taken around by members of the Ketchikan camp of Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood — a civil rights organization. She was voted in as a member of Ketchikan's Camp 14 this year.
Stock, like Lindbeck, is battling low name recognition. The AFN convention lets her remind thousands that she is running and explain how she would be different from — and in her view, better than — Murkowski.
"It's important for me because a lot of the folks who encouraged me to run for United States Senate are tied with the Alaska Native community," Stock said.
Metcalfe may underscore that he was born and raised on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana, where his father, a rancher, leased land from individuals for grazing and crops.
AFN delegates usually don't, as a body, endorse candidates, though they have in recent years. If a resolution to do so comes forward, they will hash it out behind closed doors, as provided for in the AFN endorsement policy. That's what happened two years ago when the convention ultimately endorsed now-Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, and then-Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat who lost his re-election bid to Republican Dan Sullivan.
"It hasn't always been that the chosen candidate wins," said Jerry Isaac, co-chairman of AFN and originally from the Alaska Highway village of Tanacross. "There is no clear picture of which way the Native vote is going to go."
Miller, who entered the race late, was the only one of the six statewide candidates invited to the forums who did not complete AFN's lengthy questionnaire for its voter guide. He sent out talking points to Alaska Native corporations over the weekend that he plans to circulate at AFN. The others provided detailed answers for AFN's guide.
Candidates are being pressed for answers on the state's financial crisis and high costs of energy in rural Alaska, struggling village schools and conflicts over fish and game.
For many issues, some say part of the solution may be more authority and responsibility for tribes.
A controversy from 2013 lingers. Stock said some Alaska Native voters still talk about how Murkowski exempted Alaska from parts of the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
All of Alaska but especially rural areas suffer from high rates of domestic violence. The federal law specified that tribes could issue protective orders against non-Natives and also could prosecute criminal domestic violence cases against nonmembers.
Murkowski added a provision that exempted Alaska except the lone reservation, in Metlakatla, on the grounds that the law only applies to Indian Country.
But Native rights lawyers say Murkowski's understanding was incorrect and that the law ensured cases could be brought outside of Indian Country. Murkowski, along with Young and then-Sen. Mark Begich, later were able to repeal the Alaska exemption.
People remain "very, very, very upset about that," Stock said.
In the AFN voter guide, Young said that removing the Alaska exemption allows "Native communities a greater role in handling domestic violence cases."
Murkowski says a specific law allowing Alaska tribes to fully prosecute domestic violence cases still is needed. This spring, she committed to introducing a measure to do that as well as address other public safety problems in villages, her office communications director, Karina Petersen, said in an email.
All of those running appear to want to strengthen the power and jurisdiction of tribes, at least in some areas.
Tribes and village leaders are well-positioned to address substance abuse and domestic violence because they understand "the dynamics and people involved," Young said in the voter guide.
Miller, who is pushing for reduced federal government, wants to redefine its role and that of the state and tribes. "This will correct the role of the feds and place your needs ahead of those of the federal government," he wrote in the letter to Native leaders that he circulated over the weekend.
Alaska Native people, not the federal government, should be making decisions that govern their lives, Murkowski wrote in the voter guide. She called herself "a strong supporter of tribal self-determination."
Stock pointed to the promise of tribal courts, where Native communities could enforce their own local laws and "those laws within the scope of jurisdiction under federal law."
Some big changes may be coming. Metcalfe touched on one, a mechanism new for Alaska with which tribes can put their lands into trust with the federal government. That could lead to large parts of the state finally being designated as Indian Country. Metcalfe said it might be a way to give tribes more governing authority.
Lindbeck called it "a promising development" and noted that land won't be put into federal trust unless tribes seek it. The state should also be involved, he said.
"It's a strategy that gives self-determination to Alaska Native people in stronger and better ways," Lindbeck said.
He and the other challengers say the incumbents had their chance and it's time for change.
For her part, Stock said Murkowski is good at making promises to Alaska Native people, just not at delivering results.
But Murkowski's aides say she is a tireless fighter and does deliver — time and again. She is on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and was honored with the National Congress of American Indians congressional leadership award.
Her aides credit her with pushing to end government practices that short-changed what tribes received to administer health and social service programs. She saved valued programs, including one that brings running water to rural communities that have gone without, her campaign communications director, Robert Dillon, said. The list goes on and on.
Candidates will get to make their first pitch to the AFN board of directors on Tuesday.