A cliche in politics is some debates are won if a candidate just shows up, but it’s almost certainly unheard of for an opponent to acknowledge that in glowing terms the way former Republican Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin did at the beginning of the Alaska Federation of Natives forum for U.S. House contenders on Saturday.
“This is the toughest campaign because of her — Mary,” Palin said, referring to newly sworn Congresswoman Mary Peltola, who got a rock star welcome earlier during the convention as the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. “We are in Mary’s house and I know that. I’m as proud of her as you are…I just wish she’d convert to the other party, but other than that I love her.”
Peltola, the lone Democrat in the four-candidate race, returned the congenial spirit that prevailed during much of the 45-minute forum at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage, thanking Libertarian Chris Bye for his opening referring to tribal sovereignty issues related to salmon allocations and stating Republican Nick Begich III’s “last comment is actually my first comment” in response to a question about public safety. Such moments were a continuation of a bipartisan honeymoon wave Peltola is riding, having been endorsed during the convention by Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and staff of former Republican Rep. Don Young.
Saturday’s forum, the first of three during the day featuring all of the candidates in the major races in this year’s general election, featured questions the candidates were provided in advance. The emphasis, as expected, was on Alaska Native and rural issues, with candidates given one minute for responses.
Also, perhaps as expected, the responses to the AFN-specific issues were frequently were linked to the candidates’ broader platforms.
Palin, for instance, when listing her top three priorities, cited first halting “Biden’s war on energy” because “God has supplied Alaska as the Fort Knox of America” in terms of natural resources. She also cited inflation due to excessive government spending, and “crony capitalism in D.C.” such as the “Biden family links to communist China — they deserve to be investigated.”
Peltola first cited food security, stating it was the reason she initially decided to run, along with “continuing Congressman Young’s legacy by working on the myriad of bills he left after his passing” and focusing on an appropriation process that benefits states.
Begich also mentioned resource development first, which has been a dominant theme of his campaign, repeating a familiar line that “folks on the left, if you really care about this environment and this world you would demand it be done in a jurisdiction like Alaska which knows how to do it right.” He also mentioned controlling federal spending to combat inflation and, somewhat in contradiction, “more hard investments on infrastructure.”
Bye said his top priority is “a system of feedback for Alaskans,” including having upriver and coastal communities represented on resource management councils. He also mentioned federal spending cuts to control inflation, along with reducing regulations to make things ranging from energy production to cutting trees for firewood more accessible to Alaskans.
But Bye’s Libertarian approach to governing resulted in a largely hands-off answer when asked about ensuring pubic safety in remote villages that are suffering high rates of violence with little or no law enforcement presence.
“In a Libertarian world almost all funding is locally resourced,” he said. While some outside funding is inevitably needed “at the end of the day, we need to remove the drug that federal funding is. I think it really comes down to the governor and the state and the community. My first inclination on this is to say ’call your representative in Juneau.’ And then I’ll call the governor.”
Begich, in a reply resulting in praise from Peltola, said one important step is to implement a model that provides steady federal funding rather than grants local entities have to apply for every year or two. Peltola said she also believes part of the solution is spending more money on treatment for problems such as substance abuse, and tribal courts have proven to be a good model for community based justice in drug-related cases. Palin, referring to the concept of forward funding of education as a model, said adequate law enforcement funding is a priority despite her call for less overall federal spending.
Mental health and high suicide rates among Alaska Native youths was a separate question during the forum, which Palin also responded to by invoking a different policy area by declaring the federal government should provide job opportunities because “God created us to work.” She again noted Alaska has natural resources that can provide economic security and vocational education can prepare youths for those jobs.
“I really think it’s important as a society and as a culture that we recognize life even more,” she said. “I want every one of us to reach out to anyone who thinks they’re at the end of their rope.”
Peltola said mental health involves a multitude of issues including safe housing, education, nutrition, broadband to provide telehealth and community-level services. Begich noted federal agreements with tribes require health care support and “that is not just physical, it extends to health care.” Bye said as a combat veteran whose seen high suicide rates among enlistees he believes a local-level approach is most effective because “if we are going to rely on an academic to fly into Hooper Bay…I think we are going to find they’re lacking.”
Housing affordability and shortages are among the most frequently mentioned problems during this year’s campaigns in Alaska, and according to the three non-Democratic candidates the problem is largely due to the federal government.
Palin said supplies are too expensive due to inflation, and “government needs to get off our backs and get back on our side and allow the local communities to do the regulating of the building.” Begich said rural Alaska communities are forced to follow the same standards as communities in the Lower 48 and the federal government has “locked up” land access in the state. Bye, also citing land access, tempted the displeasure of the crowd by stating “one (factor) that may hurt a little bit” is a lot of land is also locked up by tribal entities.
Peltola, putting her priority on establishing infrastructure related to housing, said leveraging money from last year’s federal infrastructure bill for broadband and utility projects is among her priorities.
The forum concluded with a series of rapid-fire yes/no questions which, unlike other forums asking things such as “do you favor a constitutional convention,” were much more light-hearted and friendly — or so it would seem.
The contenders were asked things such as if they’ve eaten muktuk this year (Peltola’s answer: “Eskimo salad, you can’t make it without muktuk”), shopped for crafts at the convention and whether AFN is their favorite convention. Palin and Peltola quickly gave resounding yes replies to the last question, but the two men didn’t exactly bring down the house with the final two answers of the debate.
“Top five for sure,” Begich said, adding after a pause “I told you I’m an honest politician.”
Bye offered up a mild assessment.
“So far it’s been pretty good,” he said.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org