A gubernatorial debate at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Friday highlighted differences between the two leading candidates on Medicaid, the Pebble prospect and, perhaps most importantly, their choices for lieutenant governor.
Candidates were asked how they felt about a recent federal court decision that found the state had violated the Voting Rights Act and called for expanded language assistance for some Alaska Native voters who speak limited English.
Republican Gov. Sean Parnell said the state has made progress and that an effort involving the Division of Elections, the Get Out the Native Vote effort and others helped lead to the creation of more than 100 new polling places in rural Alaska for early voting.
Bill Walker, an independent candidate, seized the opportunity.
"Maybe this is a good time for me to introduce my running mate, Byron Mallott," Walker said, pointing out the respected Alaska Native leader in the audience. "Byron Mallott will be in charge of elections, and that's a good thing."
Walker said that with Mallott as lieutenant governor, there won't be elections disputes between the state and Alaska Natives that must be sorted out in court.
"More communication, less litigation will be our approach," Walker said.
During the debate -- with candidate responses timed by the beating of a skin-drum -- Walker said he supported Medicaid expansion and opposes the Pebble mine prospect based on what he knows now.
"It's not really a money issue, it's a human decency issue," Walker said of Medicaid.
Parnell said he opposed Medicaid expansion in part because it will saddle the federal government with more debt. He said his Medicaid advisory group is working on solutions to ensure that all Alaskans get access to medical care.
Parnell pointed out that Walker has said he would accept Medicaid expansion as long as it's fully funded by the federal government. But what happens in two years when federal support drops to 90 percent, or later years when that support falls further? Walker said he'd reassess his commitment in two years.
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As for Pebble, Parnell said Walker has the luxury of choice on that question, but as governor he does not. That's because he has to ensure a fair permitting process free of corruption, and that casting judgment on a project before a plan is submitted violates that protection.
"A governor should not be judge, jury and executioner before a permit process is applied for," Parnell said.
Parnell said he is advancing an effort that would allow tribal governments to have more jurisdiction in issues related to certain alcohol and domestic violence cases, an initiative he introduced at the annual convention last year. The effort stemmed from sitting down with the AFN board to find a way forward, he said.
Asked how the state could improve state-tribal relations, Parnell said that following a decision in the Kasayulie lawsuit he worked with rural leaders to create an equitable funding formula for rural school construction. Sans his usual tie and coat for an event attended largely by rural residents, Parnell at one point told the audience, "I respect you, I love you," and said he will continue working with them to find solutions.
Walker said he would aggressively pursue resource development projects and promote more hiring of Alaskans through vocational and technical training and by tying a local hire requirement to large state tax credits.
Asked how he would improve state-Native relations, Walker said: "Stop suing each other."
Walker took that opportunity to again remind the audience of Mallott and said he would listen to him closely.
After the debate, Mallott took the stage alone for a 10-minute speech. Parnell's running mate, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, will get the same chance on Saturday.
Mallott, 71, said there were two Alaskas when he was growing up -- one for Natives and one for non-Natives. "It didn't register as necessarily being wrong, but it was very real," he said.
In a speech that had little to do with politics, he said things have improved for young people today, though there is still a long way to go.
Toward the end of his talk, Mallott said if he's elected it will be wonderful. If not, that's OK, too, because it's just "another step on a journey that our people have been on for generations and generations and generations."
If Mallott wins, the next steps he'll take on "our collective road" will be with Walker, he told the audience.
He asked Walker to join him onstage and the two men raised their arms in a victory clasp as a whooping audience gave a standing ovation.