AFN endorses Begich after hearing from Senate candidates

Candidate for U.S. Senate Dan Sullivan and incumbent Mark Begich met on-stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage Friday. AFN delegates voted Saturday to endorse Begich for re-election. An endorsement of Bill Walker for governor and Byron Mallot for lieutenant governor was also announced.

From the start, delegates were overwhelmingly in support of Begich. Many waved Begich campaign signs from the audience and clapped and cheered every time the senator answered a question. For Sullivan, things got off to a rocky start during the lightning round, which required yes or no answers.

“Do you support the development of the Pebble Mine project?”

Begich said no. Sullivan responded, “I support the process for all economic development.” Before he could finish the sentence a moderator repeated that the answer has to be yes or no and the audience booed him.

Sullivan criticized Begich for being a Democrat because in 2010 the Alaska Democratic Party sued to ban a list of write-in candidates from voting booths. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was a write-in that year, and there were concerns that Alaska Natives whose first language is not English would have a difficult time without the list.

In the end, the Alaska Supreme Court allowed the list. Dan Sullivan was the state attorney general at the time defending it on behalf of the Division of Elections. What he–and Begich–didn’t mention was that the Alaska Republican Party joined forces with Democrats on that issue. Still, Begich tried to distance himself from the leadership of the Democratic Party.

“There’s a process that they elect a chairman, I’m not the chair never have been, just to make that very clear to you Dan,” Begich said.

“I understand what that case was about. The question was very simple: When the list of the write-in candidates were put forward is that electioneering close to the ballot box? That’s what that was. I wasn’t party to that lawsuit, so let me make sure that’s clear.”

Both candidates agreed that Alaska’s subsistence management system was “broken.” Their solutions, however, differed. Begich supports more federal involvement.

“I get requests now from many different parts of the community of Alaska asking for more federal control in the sense of managing the subsistence rights because they believe the state is not listening,” Begich said. “An example of that was when the commercial fishing was closed and subsistence was closed and when they reopened, commercial got the opening first and subsistence did not. I wrote a strong letter to the governor about this, that subsistence rights are a fundamental right.”

Sullivan told the audience that he understands the importance of subsistence. He talked about spending summers at fish camp with his wife, Julie Fate Sullivan, who is the daughter of Mary Jane Fate, a once prominent figure in the Alaska Federation of Natives. He thinks that more state involvement is key to fixing subsistence, not less. At the end of his answer, he defended himself to delegates for his role in representing the State of Alaska in the Katie John case, a case that AFN was involved in for 19 years. AFN saw the state’s appeals of the case as an attack on subsistence rights.

“When I was attorney general I did participate in an element of the Katie John case,” Sullivan said.

“This has been a case going on for decades. It was no personal lawsuit against Katie John; I have the deepest respect for her like I do my mother-in-law. That case was about, when I was involved, the extent of state control over our rivers and as Alaska’s attorney general, I advocated for more state control, not control from the federal government and that’s the way most state officials have done that.”

After the forum, volunteers with signs reading “Follow me to Vote” appeared. The volunteers led people across the street to city hall, where ballots for all precincts across the state were available for early voting.

On Saturday, the final day of the convention, delegates voted in a new co-chair. Tara Sweeney, who was appointed to the position last year, lost to Jerry Isaac, a former president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks.

Sweeney is a senior vice president for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and also the co-chair of the Sullivan for Senate campaign. Some delegates said that they didn’t think an AFN co-chair should be allowed to campaign for any candidate. AFN co-chair Ana Hoffman has been actively involved in the Begich campaign. Hoffman is the president and CEO of Bethel Native Corp. Her term as co-chair will be up next year.

Sealaska Corp. put in all their votes for Sweeney. All the other Southeast groups gave their votes to Isaac. The Southeast region has one of the largest percentages of votes in AFN; most of those votes are held by Sealaska.

Delegates met in an executive session Saturday afternoon to debate two candidate endorsement resolutions. The Walker/Mallott campaign endorsement took less than 30 minutes to be approved.

It took another hour before delegates decided to endorse Begich. Some groups reportedly refused to vote for or against the resolution endorsing Begich, saying that they didn’t want to get involved in the back-and-forth that has been a part of this year’s convention. AFN doesn’t always endorse candidates during an election and the conversations surrounding this year’s senate endorsement have at times been tense.

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