Alaska State House candidate Marilyn Stewart grew up in a family of Democrats in Alabama. Her first political job in Alaska was with Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles in community relations. Stewart later joined the Republican party when she began to feel the Democratic party wasn’t doing enough to elevate people from lower economic standings — especially for black Alaskans like her.
“I would hear things like, ‘Well we gotta get those people to the polls to vote. Who in the black community should we reach out to that can galvanize these people and get them to the polls and vote?'” Stewart said. “Versus in the Republican party, the conversation we’re having is that we want prosperity, we want business opportunity for all.”
Now a Republican running in District 21 in Anchorage, Stewart is a minority in several ways. A little less than 4 percent of the state is black, and a Pew research study found that about 10 percent of black people in America identify as conservative — with 3 percent calling themselves Republicans. If that holds true in Alaska, Stewart falls in a demographic that’s less than half of a percent of the state’s population.
Alaska’s Legislature has always been overwhelmingly white. Even in the most diverse areas of the state, white Alaskans have almost always been elected to serve in Juneau. This year, there are seven black Alaskans running for the Legislature — six for the house and one for the senate. It’s an unusually high number.
Anchorage NAACP president Kevin McGee says he’s never seen so many black candidates on the ballot.
“Not to my knowledge, and like I said, I’ve been here since ’73,” McGee said.
And four of the candidates are black Republicans — like Marilyn Stewart. They make up about 11 percent of the Republicans running for the state House.
Tuckerman Babcock chairs the Alaska Republican Party. He says the party doesn’t go out of its way to recruit diverse candidates. But he says the party has been encouraging minority candidates who show interest in Republican politics to seek prominent roles.
“People who have traditionally not given the Republican Party any thought, despite their being moderate or conservative themselves, now they realize they are welcome, they are encouraged,” Babcock said.
All four black Republicans running for the House ran unopposed in the primary elections, something Babcock attributed to the support of the party for these candidates. But they’ll have an uphill battle to win the general election. All are running for office in districts that have been long represented by Democrats. Ceezar Martinson is running to fill the District 20 seat of retiring Democratic Representative Les Gara.
The other black Republican candidates are Marcus Sanders, running against incumbent Andy Josephson for House District 17, and Stanley Wright who’s challenging incumbent Ivy Spohnholz in House District 16. Both black Democrats running for the state House are running in conservative districts. Danyelle Kimp is running against Republican Nancy Dahlstrom in House District 13 to replace outgoing Representative Dan Saddler. Dennis Harris is running to unseat incumbent Louise Stutes in House District 32.
Martinson says that he’s encouraged that, even if he and the other candidates don’t all win, they are showing a diversity of thought among black Americans.
“And it’s been an honor to run with all of them, because I think all of us have a diversity of background and experience that we have brought to our races and to the discussions that we’re having around different issues,” Martinson said. “And I think it’s really elevated the conversation.”
One of the black candidates running for office who has a clearer path to victory is Democrat Elvi Gray-Jackson, the sole candidate running for the Senate. Gray-Jackson has a career in Alaska politics that stretches back to the 90s with her service for and on the Anchorage Assembly. She’s also running against Republican Jim Crawford to replace outgoing Democratic Senator Berta Gardner in a very liberal district.
Gray-Jackson has worked locally to help recruit diverse candidates for the Democratic Party, and she says that diversity for its own sake can’t be a minority candidate’s sole platform.
“I happen to be African American, but the people that I’m going to represent are not all African Americans,” Gray-Jackson said. “We have a diverse community. I represent everybody. I work for all the people, not just people who look like me, but I work for all the people.”
Local NAACP president McGee says that even though most black Alaskans identify with the Democratic party, issues-focused campaigns are a common thread among all of the candidates of color running for office.
“If people are honest with themselves, you get an honest approach to seeking out solutions,” McGee said. “Now if you just go in there and say, ‘I’m a Democrat, and I’m only gonna look at the Democratic side of things,’ that’s not right either.”
McGee says he’s hopeful that seeing higher numbers of minority candidates in general will encourage those who thought politics wasn’t for them to reconsider.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect a seventh black candidate for the legislature: Dennis Harris, a Democrat running for House District 32.