BETHEL -- In the last weeks of the most expensive political race in Alaska history, both U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan are making a big push for support in rural Alaska, where their differences are especially distinct.
Begich and the Democrats have been working rural Alaska in a way never before seen here, with hired organizers in 40 villages including Toksook Bay, Chevak and Emmonak, plus 16 regional field offices from Barrow to Metlakatla to Bethel.
He reminded the Association of Village Council Presidents at its annual conference earlier this month how he brought congressional leaders and Obama administration officials to villages and hubs not only to see Alaska "but to expose the issues we are dealing with to the rest of the country." The trips weren't photo ops, he said.
"Those visits, and those opportunities to bring people out, create results," he told the association of Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta village leaders Oct. 9. Alaska, he noted, received more than $2 billion in federal stimulus money in 2009 and 2010, including more money per person to improve broadband Internet connections than anywhere in the country.
Sullivan's making a stand too with Ketchikan, Petersburg, Barrow and Bethel among his stops in a recent week. A Friday speech to the Bethel Chamber of Commerce played on his favorite national and state themes: anti-Obama and federal "overreach," a Cook Inlet natural gas boom and progress on a megapipeline. But he also talked about his Athabascan wife, Julie, and the family fish camp on the Yukon River near Rampart.
"My daughters have been raised in that culture," Sullivan, former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner making his first bid for elective office, told the chamber audience of about 20 at the Mud Hut restaurant on Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway.
Perhaps the prime venue to pitch rural voters is this week's Alaska Federation of Natives annual conference in Anchorage, which averages about 5,000 attendees. Begich and Sullivan will face off Friday afternoon at a Senate candidate forum. AFN co-chairs are notably split over the race. Ana Hoffman, president of Bethel Native Corp., is a Begich supporter who was featured in a campaign flier. Tara Sweeney, a senior vice president for Arctic Slope Regional Corp., is the Sullivan campaign co-chair.
AFN doesn't always endorse candidates, and no decision has been made on whether it will do so in the Senate race, Hoffman said. The AFN board will meet Tuesday to decide what procedure to follow should there be an endorsement, she said.
As of mid-October, about $30 million had been spent in the fight for the Alaska Senate seat, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The race is considered key in determining whether Republicans or Democrats control the U.S. Senate.
Katie John battles
To many in the region, no issue matters more than subsistence: fishing, hunting and gathering wild foods. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, fish racks and smokehouses are everywhere. Moose quarters hang in sheds. Berries are put up by the gallon.
Native leaders say that's where they see the biggest difference between Begich and Sullivan, who as attorney general sought to dismantle federal management of waterways for rural subsistence.
Sullivan ran an ad in the Nome Nugget with fish camp family photos that included his wife's Athabasan grandmother and attested to his support of subsistence. Begich's campaign shot back that the message conflicts with how those who have fought for Native rights to the fish and the game see Sullivan.
The Katie John litigation in particular hounds Sullivan in rural Alaska. Katie John was a revered Athabascan elder who died last year after nearly 30 years of fighting for the right to catch salmon at her family's Copper River fish camp.
"Today, I can openly and honestly state that I am deeply uncomfortable with the reality that the man who re-opened my mom's case could be Alaska's next senator," her son, Fred John Jr., said in a recent newspaper opinion piece.
Sullivan earlier this month ran an ad on his Facebook news feed that said subsistence management in Alaska is broken and must be repaired, unleashing a flurry of comments challenging his record. The ad ran its course and no longer shows up on his Facebook feed but it is still accessible through a link provided by Begich's campaign.
Federal law provides for a rural preference, giving people in rural areas who traditionally harvest the fish or game, and who rely on it, first right to it. But the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that all in Alaska must have equal access to fish and game under the state Constitution. So now there are two systems for managing subsistence.
Would Sullivan push for a state constitutional amendment to ensure a state rural preference? Melanie Bahnke asked in the Facebook comments. Sullivan didn't directly answer.
The Katie John litigation dates back decades and includes a series of rulings and cases that predate Sullivan's involvement. In late 2009, just months after becoming attorney general, Sullivan stepped in, filing an appeal in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that challenged federal authority over waterways.
"I was an advocate for state control over D.C. bureaucrats over our waterways, the same position Gov. Tony Knowles and almost every other state ... leadership official took," Sullivan said Oct. 10 at the Alaska Native Brotherhood/Alaska Native Sisterhood grand camp in Petersburg, according to a transcript provided by Democrats. ANB is a Native education and advocacy organization.
But in fact, then-Gov. Knowles back in 2001 decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court an earlier decision extending federal authority over subsistence to navigable waters.
Sullivan raised "every possible argument he could think of to overturn federal protections for subsistence fishing in rivers inside and running alongside federal lands, the refuges and parks," said Lloyd Miller, a Begich supporter and Native rights attorney in Anchorage.
Sullivan sought a requirement that each and every river on or along federal lands would need to be individually reviewed, a process that could take decades, Miller said.
But Sullivan noted that Native rights attorneys also appealed the same case.
"We were trying to extend the state's control, and the other side was trying to extend federal control," he said.
Begich says that subsistence is more than simply "important" to Alaska Native culture.
"When you hear people use the buzzwords -- or what I call coded words -- they say it's important for the culture, what they are really saying is, it's not your rights," Begich this month told a packed room of about 150 people at the Association of Village Council Presidents conference. "What you hear from me -- it is your right."
The crowd whistled, hooted and clapped.
In Petersburg, Sullivan was pressed on whether he would support an Alaska Native preference for subsistence -- ensuring that Native people get access to fish and game above others in times of shortage. Neither state nor federal law provides for an Alaska Native preference.
No, he answered.
"I don't even think AFN pushes for Alaska Native subsistence preference," Sullivan said in an interview.
That's not correct. Back in 2010, AFN called for federal law to be changed to ensure Alaska Native people had first rights to fish and game.
Sullivan said he would do nothing to change the existing rural preference.
"I'm someone who is very supportive of subsistence and recognize that it's the highest use in terms of fish and game under both federal and state law," Sullivan told the Bethel Chamber.
AFN asked the candidates a series of subsistence questions just published in its voter guide. As to a Native preference, Begich said he is looking to the Alaska Native community for what would work best and that he "will work to support the recommendations for policy changes set forth by AFN."
Rural turnout important
Native leaders largely have lined up behind Begich. He's backed by Sealaska, Ahtna Inc., Bering Straits Native Corp, Alaska Native Brotherhood and Central Council Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents; Dan Winkelman, president of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.; and Andrew Guy, president of Calista Corp., all have endorsed Begich, according to the campaign.
Sullivan, who had been part of the Parnell team that backed oil tax cuts and pushed for more drilling, has the support of Arctic Slope Regional Corp., which owns land leased for drilling and subsidiaries that work in the oil industry. He also has endorsements from individual Native and rural leaders including Jake Adams, a whaling captain who is the former longtime president of ASRC; 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker, who is Inupiaq; Oliver Leavitt, director of the First Alaskans Institute; and Bristol Bay Borough Mayor Dan O'Hara.
Six years ago, Begich won handily in rural Alaska. Bethel and surrounding villages backed him 2-to-1 over Ted Stevens, the then-powerful senior senator damaged by a corruption conviction later wiped away.
Begich can expect to win rural Alaska again, but the region still is a hot spot in the fierce contest, said Matt Larkin, owner of Dittman Research, which has worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in support of Sullivan.
If voter turnout is high in the region, that will help Begich, Larkin said. But if Sullivan can nab rural votes from the first-term senator, it could boost his chance at a winning margin, Larkin said.
"In any close election, campaigns need to and do contest every region in the state, and that means even regions you think you might lose ... to try to limit your opponent's winning percentage, if you will," he said.
Begich, whose campaign swag includes berry buckets, has been to dozens of rural villages. Rural leaders said that is key.
"Coming to Bethel, Nome, Dillingham is not Alaska," said Zack Brink, executive director of Orutsararmiut Native Council, the tribe for Bethel. "You have to go out to the villages to see firsthand what the needs are." He's a Begich supporter.
Begich volunteers and paid Democratic Party staff are walking village boardwalks to seek out voters. Native leaders are calling village friends. Retired Bethel teachers are approaching former students to encourage a vote for Begich.
"We have knocked on every single door in rural Alaska," Begich said. "There's no one that's ever done that."
Sullivan is reaching out too. He met with key Bethel leaders Friday, introduced to some by Democratic Rep. Bob Herron, a former Marine who said he considers Sullivan -- an officer in the Marine reserves -- part of the Marine family and a friend.
Sullivan was aiming to visit his first YK Delta villages -- Aniak and Hooper Bay -- on Saturday with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. She is backing her fellow Republican.
Four years ago, Native leaders backed Murkowski's successful write-in campaign, but even then, less than half of the rural vote turned out, Begich said. He is urging people to vote soon as early polling stations open Monday.
With the help of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state this year added about 120 stations for early voting, all in rural areas.