AK: New “marriage” between Iditarod and politics

It’s not rare to see mushers touting various brands and companies as they drive their dog teams down the Iditarod trail. Sponsorship is a major source of financial support. This year a few mushers have gotten involved in touting political candidates as both the congressional and presidential election season heats up.

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Senator Lisa Murkowski and musher DeeDee Junrowe at the ceremonial Iditrod start (Photo by Patrick Yack, Alaska Public Media)
Senator Lisa Murkowski and musher DeeDee Jonrowe at the ceremonial Iditarod start (Photo by Patrick Yack, Alaska Public Media)

Last month, US Senator Lisa Murkowski released a radio spot in anticipation of this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Mushers Jeff King, John Baker and DeeDee Jonrowe offered their endorsements for her re-election.

The spot came out ten days before the race began. It was a savvy way to take advantage of the Iditarod’s Alaskan audience.

John Baker said his family has been tight with the Murkowskis for many years.

“Lisa’s mother and my mother went to high school together,” said Baker. “Since then our families have been extremely close. I have really enjoyed watching her and her political career. I want to be a part of that, I want to be apart of helping her.”

Baker also endorsed Murkowksi’s father Frank, when he ran for US Senate in 1981.

Musher DeeDee Jonrowe also said she didn’t think twice about endorsing Senator Murkowski.

“She’s a long time, long time family friend,” Jonrowe said.

This is only the second time Jonrowe has endorsed a political candidate. In the 1980’s she supported John Binkley’s runs for both state house and state senate. Jonrowe has lined a team out for the start of the Iditarod more times than any other musher. She said it is the race’s historic background that justifies her involvement in state politics.

“Mushing was what brought attention to the fact that we had people dying in Nome and there was a need and it was apolitical decision to take mushers instead of airplanes at that one particular time,” said Jonrowe. “So, I think that its very much a marriage between politics and mushing.”

While senators from other states are fighting for their political lives, Murkowki is running against a lesser-known independent challenger. She has used the Iditarod as a platform for her campaigns before, but given that her re-election this year isn’t nearly as contentious as it has been in the past, endorsements from mushers might be more of a personal gesture than any sort of coordinated strategy.

Four-time champion Jeff King said Senator Murkowski has helped him sort through a few problems he had running his tourism business near Denali National Park, so he was happy to return the favor.

“The biggest reason that I supported Lisa Murkowski was that Joe Miller scared the shit [bleep] out of me,” King said.

But King said he’s not closing the door on considering other candidates, given a number of federal-level issues currently playing out in congress.

I’m not saying I’m going to vote for her next time. It’s a long ways away and there’s some really important stuff going on,” said King.

King said he agreed to the endorsement because at this point in the election season, he trusts the senator more than any other candidate.

“I believe she believes in Alaska and I believe she’s doing the best she can and I don’t think there is ulterior motives,” King said.

This year, the Iditarod Trail Committee implemented a new rule that prohibits mushers from making statements that disparage the race or its sponsors for a month and a half after they cross the finish line. Iditarod Trail Committee CEO Stan Hooley says political endorsements don’t fall under that rule.

“People that are in political office that have done a great deal for this event and advocating certain issues where we needed help, they’ve been supportive of this race and helped us out a lot so I think it’s a natural thing for us to want t return that,” said Hooley.

Alaska’s lone Representative Don Young also put out a short video in which the Congressman spoke about his Iditarod memories, but no mushers have formally endorsed Young.

Hooley said he doesn’t expect the race organization itself to formally endorse any candidates.

“Probably not formally no, but I certainly don’t see issues with individual competitors doing that,” Hooley said. “They are individuals.”

The endorsements this year go beyond races specific to Alaska. musher Monica Zappa hung an enormous sign for Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on her dog truck at the start line of the race.  She also adorned her sled and parka with Sanders campaign buttons and stickers.

“So it’s not just like ‘Hi I want to run the Iditarod for me,’” Zappa said. “It brings a larger purpose to my mushing and maybe even the event.”

Zappa has always been outspoken. She uses her time on the trail to raise awareness for other causes like the protection of Bristol Bay’s wild salmon.  She and DeeDee Jonrowe realize opining from the back of a dog sled isn’t for everyone. Jonrowe added that she wouldn’t personally choose to jump full force into the political realm.

“I don’t think that’s our arena,” said Jonrowe. “I don’t see myself as some kind of a political animal. I really don’t.”

Jonrowe said at one time she had considered running for office in Juneau, but she decided that wasn’t the kind of race she wanted to compete in.