Cissna challenging Young for U.S. House Seat

Election Day is three weeks from today. Neither of Alaska’s U.S. Senators is up for reelection this term. But there is one statewide race, that hasn’t received much attention: Democrat Sharon Cissna’s uphill bid to unseat Representative Don Young, and what it means for her party in Alaska.

Sharon Cissna served seven terms in the State Assembly. A Democrat, she represented the university area of Anchorage.  And as her final term was winding down, she was anticipating a return to her career as a counselor.

“I came at this at point of really wanting to move out into the private sector and really working hard at continuing the searches that my husband and I had been on to communities around the state. Understanding what do they need? And what are their challenges,” Cissna said.

In 2010, though, Cissna experienced a well-documented run in with the Transportation Security Administration. She refused a pat down from TSA screeners and, for two years, has refused to travel through any airport that would require her to get a pat down.

“So I’m flying on smaller planes and getting to Canada and flying on Canadian airlines if I have to go long distances because I will not allow myself to be abused. Which I think is a very healthy attitude.” Cissna said.

Cissna’s crusade against what she sees as unconstitutional intrusions is taking a new form. She’s trying to oust 19-term incumbent Don Young from Congress. And by any measure, that’s a hard task.

Financially, she’s got pennies to Young’s thousands. As of mid-August, Cissna reported having just over $1,000 on hand. Young had almost $570,000.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – which tries to elect Democrats to the U.S. House – is not supporting Cissna. The DCCC did not respond to repeated calls and emails for this story. And on its website, it doesn’t even list the Alaska at-large seat as a race.

The state party did not return calls for comment either. And Sharon Cissna says she’s had no recent meetings with state party officials, though she’s listed on the Alaska Democrats’ website.

Ethan Berkowitz came closer to unseating Young in the general election than anyone in the past 20 years. He says there is no way any Democrat in the state will ever beat Don Young.

“Until someone can make a compelling case why he’s not the best spokesperson for Alaska, he’s going to stay there,” Berkowitz said. “We like our seniority in this state.”

That seniority was stripped a few years ago when federal investigators revealed Young’s involvement in a scheme to reward campaign contributors with earmarks. The Department of Justice never filed charges.

Berkowitz says the Alaska Democratic Party needs to expand beyond Anchorage, a city he represented as the minority leader in the state house. And on top of that, it needs to define its own, state-centric message. Because, he complains, state Democrats spend too much time fending off attacks against the national party, like the charge that environmentalists run the show.

“We’re a resource development state. Like it or not. That’s where Alaska’s bread and butter comes from. That’s where our jobs come from. That’s how people feed their families. The perception has to be that Alaska Democrats are going to fight for jobs and they’re going to fight for families. They’re going to fight for when resource development occurs, Alaskans are going to be the prime beneficiaries,” Berkowitz said.

And not only does Sharon Cissna come from Anchorage. she’s not gung-ho about all the drilling in the state.

“We don’t need to develop all of the oil and gas in Alaska in the next five years. Pretty sure we’re going to need it in the future, and it will bring us more money later,” Cissna said.

So party leaders have a candidate who doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of what they want an Alaska Democrat to look like.

Sharon Cissna is upbeat and engaging. She has a strong track record in Juneau. But her command of federal issues is shaky. She demurred when asked her thoughts on pending across the board spending cuts. And when questioned about extending the payroll tax cut at year’s end, she had this to say.

“Well…that…that level of detail I’d want to know a great deal more than I would, than I can really answer right now,” Cissna said.

That was a similar answer to a question about whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts or to keep them at certain income levels. Cissna says she’ll surround herself with able aides who have expertise in these areas.

She says if she’s elected she wants to end the partisanship in Washington.

“I’m sort of, more a bridge builder. I’ve been the co-chair of the legislative health caucus for nine years. What we’ve done is tried very hard to bring everybody together and everybody talking. So I think that’s one of the critical things I can offer, is listening to everyone,” Cissna said.

Washington D.C. is not a town known for listening, and by most accounts; partisanship will only increase after the election.

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