At Bethel forum, US House candidates address Roe v. Wade, salmon and public safety

The three candidates sit at a table onstage
Emil Notti, Mary Peltola, and Tara Sweeney discuss rural issues in Bethel. (Elyssa Loughlin/KYUK)

Three Alaska Native candidates running in the special primary election for Alaska’s U.S. House seat came to Bethel for a candidate forum last Friday. Constituents attending the forum brought up three main issues important to them: abortion access, salmon conservation and public safety.

Four of the 48 candidates in the race were slated to attend: Emil Notti, Mary Peltola, Tara Sweeney and Sarah Palin.

Peltola, a Democrat, is Yup’ik and served as a legislator for the Bethel region for a decade. Most recently, she served as the executive director of the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Notti, a Democrat, is Athabascan from Koyukuk. At age 89, he’s the oldest candidate in the race. Notti is best known for being the Alaska Federation of Natives’s first president and helping to author the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Sweeney, a Republican, is Iñupiat from Utqiagvik. She served as the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs during the Trump administration.

Bethel resident Trim Nick said he did not attend the forum to see these three candidates.

“I came to see Sarah,” Nick said.

But Palin didn’t show. Heavy fog delayed Sweeney and Palin’s flight by hours. In the interim, Palin canceled her ticket and wasn’t able to get a new one. That’s according to event organizer and moderator Ana Hoffman, President and CEO of Bethel Native Corporation.

Hoffman asked the three candidates who did make it six questions about rural Alaska issues. In one of the final questions, she asked the candidates if they supported overturning Roe v. Wade and allowing individual states to legislate abortion access. Alaska’s constitution protects the freedom to choose abortion, but that could change next year if a constitutional convention is held and the state constitution is amended.

Peltola and Sweeney both said that they were pro-abortion rights. Peltola said that she would work to defend Roe v. Wade. Sweeney added that she does not support government funding for abortion. Notti said that he believes in state’s rights, which would mean overturning Roe v. Wade, but he said that the choice should remain legal at the state level.

“As far as abortion goes, I think that’s a three-way decision. It’s between a woman and her doctor, and the woman and God,” Notti said.

Multiple people who attended the forum said that abortion was the most important issue for them this election cycle.

“I wanted to ask what they will do about this Roe v. Wade because it’s really scary. It’s really alarming. And it definitely puts the safety of Indigenous women in the ring,” Bethel resident Victoria Sosa said.

Other attendees said that salmon conservation was their main issue. All three candidates spoke about the importance of protecting salmon during the forum. In a follow up interview with KYUK, each candidate said that they would work to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The act was originally authored by the late congressman Don Young, whose seat the candidates are vying to fill. Its aim is to protect threatened or overfished stocks.

Jayvin Williams was helping out at the event. His job was to pick up candidates from the airport and play a traditional drum during the forum when the candidates’ time to answer the questions was over. Williams said that there was one issue that was most important to him.

“I really think that public safety is the main issue,” Williams said.

Only one candidate, Peltola, offered solutions for local public safety during the forum. She responded to a question from Hoffman about how candidates would propose improving access to health care, public safety and education.

“Public safety is intertwined with so many other issues. A lot of people remain in dangerous households because of Alaska’s chronic housing shortages. So among other things, I will seek opportunities to increase our housing supply and make housing genuinely accessible,” Peltola said.

Later, in a response to a question about rural Alaska’s role in national security, Peltola said that she supports an increased military personnel presence in rural Alaska. She said that could also aid in local public safety with military officers acting as first responders in emergencies like floods or fires.

Sweeney also addressed national security.

“It’s about securing our borders, and ensuring that we continue to provide the necessary services to the rest of the country through our natural resource development. Whether it’s oil and gas up on the North Slope or critical minerals that this country needs so badly to wean itself off of the dependence that we have from China,” Sweeney said.

At the end of the event, Sweeney’s campaign handed out bags of muktuk from Utqiagvik. But Peltola, the local candidate, seemed to have the hometown advantage. Many constituents said that they were voting for her, including Bethel voter Madison Glore. She just turned 18 and is voting for the first time in this special primary election.

“I knew her [Peltola] personally. And I know her goals as a candidate. And I’m just excited to see where she takes it. I know a little bit about her and know what she wants. She is also Alaska Native, so that’s pretty exciting to see one up there,” Glore said.

If one of the four Alaska Native candidates running in this special election wins, they would be the first Alaska Native elected to the U.S. Congress.

The deadline to register to vote in the special primary election for Alaska’s U.S. House seat is May 12. Ballots must be postmarked by June 11.

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