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President Obama in Alaska

Surprise ride with Obama gives Kotzebue trio a chance to make their case

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 4, 2015

In a replay of another unexpected ride-along earlier in the day, President Barack Obama Wednesday evening opened up the presidential SUV to a trio of leaders in Kotzebue, giving them precious moments to talk as the motorcade cruised a short distance to the high school gym.

It was an exhilarating surprise because the three riders -- the borough and city mayors and a leading elder in town -- had just been told by the president's security detail they'd be traveling in a different car and they were not to request a ride with the president.

That's when Obama stepped in.

"He said 'Hello,' gave us hugs, and said, 'No, they are riding with me,'" said Maija Lukin, mayor of the town of 3,300.

"It was a neat bonus for all of us because we weren't expecting it," said Reggie Joule, mayor of the borough representing 11 Northwest Alaska communities.

Larry Westlake, president of the Regional Elders Council and borough Assembly, also got the presidential invite.

The three were there to welcome the first sitting U.S. president to arrive in the Arctic. They waited at the bottom of the stairs as Obama stepped onto the Kotzebue tarmac.

It was cramped inside the car, sort of like being on a small bush plane with jump seats. Obama sat elbow-to-elbow with Lukin on a bench seat. Facing them in fold-down seats were Joule and Westlake.

"I kept telling myself, 'he's just a regular person, he's just a regular person,' " said Lukin.

Her butterflies settled when the president asked the group to talk about issues important to the region.

They seized the moment.

Joule requested support to relocate the threatened village of Kivalina. He also called for revenue sharing from responsible oil and gas development in the U.S. Arctic Ocean that can provide income to help local communities offset risks from the activity, Lukin said.

All three made the case for a deep-water port 10 miles south of Kotzebue. It could help with national security, shipping safety and spill response as the Arctic opens. It could also provide relief from soaring costs in Kotzebue and several villages: Goods are brought into Kotzebue on barges as large cargo ships anchor offshore. That creates a multistep process that boosts prices 20 percent or more.

Obama was attentive and sincere, they said.

"I believe he got the feel of the people in the little time he spent both in Kotzebue and Dillingham," Lukin said, referring to the Southwest Alaska town where Robin Samuelsen, board chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., got to ride with the president.

Westlake, the elder leader, said the president was friendly and easy to talk with.

"It was such a wonderful experience," he said. "It seemed like it happened in seconds, although it was just a few minutes from the airport."

Westlake, who lives in the village of Kiana, east of Kotzebue, said he was impressed with the efforts made by an army of volunteers and groups to welcome the president.

"It was a great success," Westlake said. "He made a statement that he wants to come back to the Arctic, so I hope he does."

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