U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, left, Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka, center, and Democratic challenger Pat Chesbro discuss Arctic security, climate change and other issues during a debate Saturday at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. (AP Photos/Mark Thiessen)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, left, Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka, center, and Democratic challenger Pat Chesbro discuss Arctic security, climate change and other issues during a debate Saturday at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. (AP Photos/Mark Thiessen)

Senate trio tackles trio of tough issues

Candidates discuss Arctic security, climate change and public safety at AFN debate

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski got to embrace the biggest hero of the convention while her main rival Kelly Tshibaka got to hear her biggest supporter called a bigot. So when the two Republicans took the debate stage Saturday, along with a Democrat who’s far behind them in polls, there wasn’t much drama who’d emerge as the favorite.

The Alaska Federation of Natives, endorsed Murkowski on the final day of their three-day annual convention in Anchorage following the debate, plus two other forums for the U.S. House and gubernatorial candidates. AFN also endorsed a “no” vote on the lone ballot measure calling for a constitutional convention and reelecting U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola after she became the first Alaska Native elected to Congress in August.

The Senate candidates, seeking to appeal to voters at and beyond the convention, did plenty to explain why their particular areas of expertise are best for addressing the issues of Arctic security, climate change and public safety. Those three issues, along with asking the candidates their top three priorities during their first 90 days in office, were the only questions asked as AFN opted for quality over quantity in replies during the 45-minute forum.

Murkowski answered the Arctic question by referring to a list of in-office accomplishments such as boosting the presence of military icebreakers, deployments and the establishment of the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies. She also discussed her meeting with two Russian asylum seekers who landed on St. Lawrence Island early this month, noting Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking Indigenous and other minority populations in particular for conscription in his war against Ukraine.

“It is very clear to me that these individuals were in fear – so much in fear of their own government that they risked their lives and took a 15-foot skiff across those open waters,” she said.

A long career in administrative rather than political experience was emphasized by Tshibaka while answering the Arctic question and others. She worked in the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Justice Department among other federal agencies before becoming the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration under Gov. Mike Dunleavy until last year.

“We know the truth is the Arctic is opening up,” she said, citing Russia and China as the primary threats to the U.S. in the region. “I’m the only candidate up here who has a subject matter experience and the relationships in the national security community to successfully advocate for an expanded defense in order to strengthen our readiness and preparedness in the Arctic.”

The third candidate is Pat Chesbro, a Democrat with a 25 year-career at Palmer High School includes nine as principal. Her answer to the Arctic question following the other two candidates was less specific, stating “added to all the things mentioned here” it’s important to ensure the U.S. Coast Guard’s Arctic operations are well-funded to ensure adequate vessels and personnel.

Chesbro invoked her area of comfort responding to the question about public safety. The candidates were provided the forum’s questions ahead of time, but Chesbro was the lone contender to speak without referring to notes as she said doing more to establish healthy communities will help reduce problems such as drug and physical abuse that lead to more serious crimes.

“Education isn’t the only answer, but it certainty is an answer to public safety,” she said.

Murkowski, glancing occasionally at her notes, said she agrees with Chesbro “safety has to be about more than just law enforcement” while also reaching far across the isle in saying she agrees with Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Chris Bye about the state providing sustainable funding. But she also favors more federal involvement than him, highlighting recent actions she’s taken in Congress including securing funds for tribal courts and supporting the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act.

Tshibaka, reading from notes, said she agrees a sustainable funding formula rather than having local entities apply for annual grants is preferable. At the same time she stated federal grants are needed for training facilities, while restrictions that impair the ability of some law enforcement officials to carry guns need to be lifted.

The Republican challenger also embraced a federally funded training center for search and rescue operations as part of her solution to addressing issues raised by climate change, which include extreme weather that have left people and communities stranded. She said she also favors boosting communications capabilities through a dedicated satellite for Alaska instead of a currently funded broadband project.

“Rather than us waiting for fiber to be built to some communities we can put a satellite above Alaska with connections for all communities within a year,” she said.

A “wisdom of the ages” approach was suggested by Chesbro, who said the National Weather Service “has gone to an automated system which has had negative impact in rural Alaska (because it’s) not using the people we have.” She said the state also relies too much on volunteer search and rescue personnel, and funding for paid rescuers along with more Alaska State Troopers for such operations is needed.

The problem with relying on Alaska Natives and others who may have thousands of years of accumulated knowledge in predicting natural cycles is climate change is now severe enough to shatter that wisdom, Murkowski said.

“I’ve talked to elders who said they can no longer predict weather,” she said. “That’s scary, so we need other tools.”

Some of those tools such as increased personnel and monitoring equipment can be funded through allocations in the bipartisan infrastructure bill Murkowski played a key role in drafting last year, an achievement she referred to as a contributing solution to many of the issues raised during the forum. She also referred to her experience and a long list of policy objectives when asked to name her top three priorities during the first 90 days of the new Congress.

“Ninety days comes and goes pretty quick, so it helps to have somebody whose boots are on the ground,” she said. On specific issues, in order, she named inflation, housing shortages, workforce needs (in industries ranging from oil to tourism), supporting the military and veterans, legislation for landless tribes, and contaminated lands.

Tshibaka said her three priorities are inflation causing problems such as high fuel prices, reforming the Congressional appropriations process so funding isn’t based on seniority and excessive regulations. She also denounced what she sees as a largely singular cause of such problems — President Joe Biden, and lawmakers and government appointees supporting his agenda — noting for instance “Biden bureaucrats have buried the (infrastructure bill) money under a pile of regulations.”

There was also a singular focus — health — in Chesbro’s response. In order she cited reproductive health by codifying abortion rights, public health in order to reduce suicides and other problems with high occurrences in Native communities, and environmental health to reduce climate impacts as her top three priorities.

The candidates got “gotchaed” with the same four lighthearted lightening questions as the other two forums to end the debate, although in this instance there were no stellar soundbites or gauche gaffes. None said they ate akutaq this week, all did or were about to shop for Natives crafts during the week, and all managed to give diplomatic responses to whether AFN is their favorite convention.

“It’s my favorite welcoming and friendly convention,” Chesbro said. Tshibaka replied “when it’s in person” — last year’s was remote due to COVID-19 restrictions — and Murkowski offered the most unqualified answer with “absolutely all the time.”

But the two main contenders experienced entirely different encounters during their hours surrounding the forum. Murkowski got headlines locally and nationally by announcing her endorsement of Peltola, who got a rock star welcome when she gave the convention’s keynote speech Thursday, over two Republican challengers. Tshibaka, in contrast, was confronted by an elder about the challenger’s support for and endorsement by former President Donald Trump.

“I think he’s a bigot, and I don’t know why Republicans support him,” the elder said, according to Alaska Public Media, which reported Tshibaka listened to the denouncement with a frozen smile. “I don’t know why white people support him. And as an Indigenous woman, I don’t see you as my representative.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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