U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and his allies are slamming their two leading Republican opponents for failing to take a position on a federal law aimed at curtailing domestic violence -- the latest in a series of clashes over social issues in the U.S. Senate race.
Both Dan Sullivan and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the two Republicans who have topped polls leading into Tuesday's primary, didn't answer yes or no when an MSNBC reporter asked them if they would have voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in a story that aired Wednesday.
The campaign of Sullivan, who declined to be interviewed, provided a statement Friday to Alaska Dispatch News saying he would have supported the bill, while Treadwell, in a phone interview, said he "had some problems" with the measure and wouldn't take a position.
Some Republicans have been reluctant to embrace the Violence Against Women Act, and the fight over the bill in the U.S. Senate race illustrates why: The measure includes provisions expanding the power of Native tribes to enforce tribal law.
Alaska was exempted from that expansion in the 2013 reauthorization of the act, based on an amendment sponsored by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski that she is now trying to repeal. But Treadwell, at least, said he was still skeptical about the bill.
"A lot that I've read about the act talks about it being more a special rights issue than an equal rights issue, and that's where I'd be careful," he said in a phone interview. "Washington needs to work more closely with the people on the ground, in the front lines, before imposing solutions."
Begich, in a phone interview, criticized the responses to MSNBC from Treadwell, the state's current lieutenant governor, and Sullivan, a former attorney general and natural resources commissioner, who told MSNBC that he hadn't read the bill, then criticized Begich's support for the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
Both Republicans have participated in Gov. Sean Parnell's "Choose Respect" campaign, which seeks to reduce Alaska's high rate of domestic violence and sexual assault.
"For a state that has a significant issue with regards to domestic violence, sexual assault, I was surprised they were unaware of the legislation or couldn't take a position on it, when it was pretty highly debated," Begich said. "This is something that shouldn't be far from our minds -- and on top of that, with a campaign out there on respect, you'd think this would be part of the discussion."
The state Democratic party issued its own press release Wednesday detailing the "extreme positions" of Treadwell and Sullivan, which included the candidates' reluctance to answer MSNBC's question, while the Alaska branch of the National Organization for Women issued a statement denouncing the pair's "ambivalence toward Alaskans' safety."
The Violence Against Women Act, which passed last year after a failed attempt in 2012, contained money to train law enforcement, grants to support legal services for sexual assault and domestic violence victims, and funding for transitional housing.
It also included sections affirming tribal court powers to prosecute members and nonmembers who commit crimes on Native land, and to issue and enforce restraining orders that apply to nonmembers.
Murkowski's amendment specifically exempted those provisions from applying to Alaska tribes, arguing, along with the state, that the exemption had no practical impact, citing legal precedents that have established that there's minimal "Indian country" in Alaska, in contrast to Outside reservations.
Murkowski has since changed her position after an outcry from tribes and now, along with Begich, wants to repeal the exemption.
A spokesman for Sullivan, the Republican candidate who has led recent polls, wouldn't directly answer a question about Sullivan's position on repealing the exemption, though he cited past statements from Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty arguing the exemption does not change the state's approach to rural law enforcement.
"Our state's attorney general has said the provision changed nothing about the way rural justice is carried out in these circumstances," the spokesman, Mike Anderson, wrote in an emailed statement.
Assistant attorney general Jacqueline Schafer agreed, saying in a phone interview and in subsequent emails that the state already enforces protective orders issued by tribes to members and nonmembers. Tribal courts would not gain the ability to prosecute crimes if the exemption was repealed, Schafer added, because the relevant provisions of the Violence Against Women's Act only apply to reservations. (Alaska has just one reservation, in Southeast Alaska.)
But Kevin Illingworth, an associate professor of tribal management at University of Alaska Fairbanks, noted that even if the state enforces the orders directed to nonmembers as a practical matter, it doesn't recognize their legal validity -- a source of confusion for tribes that he argued would be cleared up by repealing the exemption in the Violence Against Women's Act.
"It threw into question: 'Can tribes do this?' " Illingworth said in a phone interview. "It's been very apparent to me that there are women and children, people who are not being protected because of this lack of clarity in the law."
Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka also called repeal of the exemption "necessary and important" in an address last year. And a federal commission that examined Alaska Natives' experience with the justice system concluded in a report that the exemption added "insult to injury" and was "unconscionable."
Lloyd Miller, a Native rights attorney, noted that the state wouldn't oppose repealing the exemption unless that had an effect.
"You have to ask yourself: If it would make no difference, why would you oppose it?" he said in a phone interview. (Schafer acknowledged that the VAWA exemption has value for the state because it reduces the likelihood of litigation over tribal authority.)
Treadwell, meanwhile, said the relevant question is not about tribal jurisdiction but about boosting law enforcement capacity in rural areas.
"The question is: How do we get more resources to cover all citizens in rural Alaska, not citizens of one race?" Treadwell said, adding the Parnell administration had "done everything we can to help get more public safety officers out there."
"We're raising those numbers, and the Democrats don't even mention that," Treadwell said. "And furthermore, the question of where tribal courts have jurisdiction, and who they have jurisdiction over, is a huge issue in this state that isn't going to be dealt with in a press release. I'm not going to be bullied -- let them bring it on."