Politics

Race for Yukon-Kuskokwim House seat pits youth against experience

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The race to represent one of the nation’s most rural state legislative districts is newly competitive.

Democrat C.J. McCormick, a Bethel City Council member serving as vice mayor of that city, had been the only candidate in the House District 38 race until mid-September. But now Myron Naneng Sr., a former head of the Association of Village Council Presidents and a nonpartisan, has entered the race as a write-in candidate. His write-in candidacy was certified by the Alaska Division of Elections on Sept. 14.

The seat is open. Current Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Democrat, opted against running for re-election.

McCormick and Naneng have much in common. Both live in Bethel, the hub community for the sprawling and mostly Yup’ik district. Both emphasize similar issues and needs – starting with the faltering salmon fisheries that have devastated Yukon-Kuskowkim Delta communities dependent on subsistence harvests for food and for cultural identity. And both say they are open to serving or otherwise working with Republicans.

But there are some key differences.

McCormick is 25 and a newcomer to political office. He was appointed in late 2020 to fill a vacancy on the Bethel City Council and elected the following year. He has been interested in politics and government since he was a kid growing up in Bethel, he said; he began attending City Council meetings when one of his school counselors took a seat on that body.

Outside of his elected post, McCormick works as a communications specialist with the Yukon Delta Health Corp., in a department headed by Zulkosky, the legislator he hopes to succeed.

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Naneng is 71, with a long record of leadership roles in the region. For two decades, he served as chief executive of the Association of Village Council Presidents. He resigned that position in 2016, following a KYUK investigation into the nonprofit tribal consortium’s financial management.

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Naneng currently serves as chairman and president of the Sea Lion Corp., the village corporation for Hooper Bay, where he grew up. He is a Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages representative for the Alaska Federation of Natives and has served on various subsistence advisory councils. He is on the board of the Calista Corp., the regional Native corporation, which has endorsed his House candidacy.

For Naneng, McCormick’s youth was a factor in the decision to enter the race late. Although he respects McCormick, “I don’t think he has enough experience,” Naneng said.

But McCormick sees his youth as an asset.

“Young people have to live with the future that we’re creating as legislators,” he said in an interview. People often say they want change in government, he said. “I believe strongly that electing young leaders is the best way to do that.”

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Fisheries issues are top priorities for both candidates.

“The biggest thing is the threat to our subsistence fisheries,” McCormick said, referring to collapses of runs in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. He said he is taking some inspiration from newly elected U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, who has raised fisheries concerns at the national level – and who was 25 herself when she was first elected to represent the district in the state legislature

Naneng said as a legislator, he would also raise “awareness by the rest of the world that when conservation concerns of natural resources are raised, our Native hunters and fishers are expected to bear the burden of conservation.”

Other high-priority issues, for McCormick, are law enforcement and infrastructure development in the rural district. Some villages in the district don’t even have village public safety officers, who are trained and employed by the state, and many residents feel neglected on that front, he said.

As for infrastructure, the disaster wreaked by Typhoon Merbok made the deficiencies even worse, he said. “It really beat up a bad situation,” he said.

Services were precarious prior to the typhoon, he noted. The village of Quinhagak, for example, has a water treatment plant “in really bad shape because of permafrost thaw,” he said. And lack of clean water in the region “has a ripple effect because it has a lot of health consequences.”

On those issues, Naneng pointed to his past work advocating for both law enforcement improvements and infrastructure investments. He would draw on his past work with ACVP to secure support for the district, and he pointed to experience he accumulated even before the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. “I have also worked in positions that have benefited many of our elders in many of the villages, not just in District 38 in pursuit of title to Native Allotments before ANCSA and after ANCSA passed,” he said by email.

Both said they would take a consensus-building approach to Juneau. Naneng said he would consider joining a Republican-led coalition. It depends, he said, on which party is “willing and open” to addressing Yukon-Kuskokwim needs. McCormick pointed out that until he launched this race, he was not registered in any party. “I’m absolutely open to working on bipartisan issues,” he said.

Counting the votes in this race will likely require a few extra steps.

There are special procedures for tabulating write-in votes, said Tiffany Montemayor, director of public affairs for the Alaska Division of Elections. When ballots are submitted, the initial reading registers only the filled-in bubble, not the actual names written in, she said.

Write-in ballots are parsed out only if their total has the potential to change an election outcome, Montemayor said. “They need to come in first place altogether as a group, or a super-close second,” she said. If that is the case, the numbers for the certified write-in candidates are tabulated, while numbers for uncertified write-in candidates are not counted toward that total, she said.

For Naneng, the write-in campaign presents some challenges. But he is well-known in the region, and he said he believes his campaign will overcome those challenges.

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“We will do an outreach with villages. I believe the voters will make a choice that they know will have a person who can represent them in the legislature,” he said by email.

Naneng’s certification leaves six legislative seats with candidates who are unopposed, as of Sept. 27. In all six, incumbents are running for reelection. They are Sen. Jesse Kiehl of Juneau, a Democrat; Rep. Andi Story of Juneau, a Democrat; Rep. Ben Carpenter of Nikiski, a Republican; Rep Mike Prax of North Pole, a Republican; Rep. and former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, an independent, and Rep. Josiah Patkotak of Utqiagvik, an independent.

In other races, as of Sept. 27 there were four certified write-in candidates running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and eight certified write-in candidates for the U.S. House seat now held by Peltola. There were no certified write-in candidates in the governor’s race as of Sept. 27, according to the Division of Elections.

There is still time for other write-in candidates to enter any of Alaska’s races. The deadline for submitting applications for certification as a write-in candidate is Nov. 3, five days prior to the general election. To be certified, a write-in candidate must submit a letter of intent form and a financial disclosure report.

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.

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