With four dozen people vying to become Alaska’s sole U.S. House member, how does anyone corral contenders into a meaningful public forum?
That was the challenge facing a coalition of resource industry groups that hosted a forum on Thursday with nine of the most prominent candidates in the race to succeed the late Don Young, who died in April after representing Alaska for 49 years.
Rebecca Logan, chief executive of the Alaska Support Alliance and moderator of the event, started off by explaining how only nine of the 48 registered candidates were invited.
The first cut, she said, was based on candidates’ decision to run in both the special election to fill the remainder of Young’s term and the subsequent regular election for the full two-year term. That got the field down to 19, she said.
The second cut was based on selection of candidates who had done “significant fundraising and have active campaigns going,” she said.
“So that’s how we ended up with the panel we have today,” she said.
That panel consisted of five Republicans, two Democrats and two independents. They were Nick Begich, grandson of the late House member who preceded Young; former state Sen. John Coghill, Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant; physician Al Gross, who ran for U.S. Senate two years ago; attorney Jeff Lowenfels, known for his gardening column; former Gov. and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin; former state Rep. Mary Peltola; state Sen. Josh Revak; and former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tara Sweeney.
State Rep. Adam Wool, a Fairbanks Democrat, would have been the 10th member of the panel, Logan said in a brief interview at the close of the event, but his decision to run in the general election as well as the special election came too late to arrange a seat for him at the dais.
For the industry groups hosting the event, the election’s time crunch added to the organizations’ challenges, Logan said. “We’re kind of pushing the envelope, with ballots already out,” she said.
The first deadline for voting in the special-election, a vote-by-mail contest, is the June 11 primary.
The nine candidates at the forum, seated in alphabetical order, faced their own common challenge: distinguishing themselves from other contenders in the very crowded field.
All voiced support for oil production, mining and other resource extraction, unsurprising positions for politicians speaking to resources industry groups. Most spoke in favor of new roads to access oil and minerals. Some, notably Palin and Revak, spent much of their speaking time blasting President Biden and his administration.
Begich opened by explaining how, though he is from Alaska, his upbringing in the “free state of Florida” made him different from others in his famous and politically prominent Democratic family.
“A lot of people ask, ‘How in the heck does a Begich become a Republican?’” he said. The answer: “I was raised Republican by grandparents who were Bible Belt Southern Republicans from southeast Missouri.”
Coghill, also with family connections to Alaska politics, cited lessons he learned from his late father, one of the authors of the state constitution who later served in the Legislature and as lieutenant governor. “Dad taught me how to value serving the community. Mom taught me how to mind my manners,” Coghill said. “Dad taught me the value of good hard work and a dollar and how to serve people. Mom taught me how to love people.”
Constant, one of two registered Democrats at the forum, touted his experience promoting infrastructure within Anchorage. He said he intends to repair a “disconnect” between policymakers and Alaska realities, something that includes outreach to members of his own party. “There’s a new form of colonialism out there where there are nonprofits that are trying to tell rural communities how they can develop. That does not work for Alaska,” he said. And he called for Alaskans to “move beyond the binary” to find common ground to solve problems.
Gross said his status as unaffiliated with any party suits Alaska’s needs. “Alaska’s an independent state, and we need a strong independent voice to represent us in Washington, somebody who wants to work for you and is serious about getting great things done for Alaska and for our country,” he said. He touted his relationship with “some of our state’s greatest leaders,” citing former Govs. Tony Knowles and Jay Hammond, and their records of working across party lines.
Lowenfels acknowledged that he might be most famous for his work as a gardening columnist but said “but I also have a real life,” he said. He ran through his years of experience working as an attorney for the state and in private practice working on resource issues and dealing with resource agencies, along with his experience heading a company seeking to build an Alaska gas pipeline. “I’ve dealt with more federal agencies and had more ANCSA and ANILCA interactions that you could shake a stick at, and often I’ve wanted to,” he said, referring to the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
Palin, who said she wanted to “make Alaska great again,” said if elected, she will be a crusader against government corruption. “The first thing I’ll do is what I’ve always done, and that is fight corruption that is absolutely getting in the way of America’s growth and prosperity and Alaska’s growth and prosperity,” she said. “I’ve been fighting against the party machine my entire 30 years of being involved in politics, and of course on a federal level, the corruption is huge.”
Peltola, the other registered Democratic candidate at the forum, initially introduced herself in Yup’ik. She touted her experience representing rural Alaska and said her top infrastructure priority is broadband communications. “I think that jobs of the future are tech jobs and right now our broadband across rural Alaska is not good,” she said. While she joined other candidates in supporting the controversial Ambler Access Project, a 211-mile road that would cut through the Brooks Range foothills, she set herself apart by defending the current regulatory process. “I do think that the process that we have in place now should give folks confidence that the project is safe and it does help build public support for those projects,” she said.
Revak used sometimes-dire language to criticize the Biden administration and others in the Lower 48. “I’m running because it feels like the country’s going to hell and they’re trying to take Alaska with it,” he said. “Inflation is out of control, gas prices are high, we’re seeing outrageous prices at the grocery store, yet the federal government wants to stop us at every turn from producing our natural resources, which is absolutely outrageous.”
Sweeney, who is from the North Slope, spoke of her work as an executive with the Inupiat-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and as the Interior Department’s top official for Native affairs – experience that she said qualifies her as Young’s successor.
“The question before voters is: Who is best equipped to represent Alaska in Washington, D.C.?” she said. “I’ve spent over 20 years of my life advocating for Alaska in Washington, D.C., walking the halls of Congress. I have a proven track record of advocacy on the congressional side and of implementation on the executive branch side.”
Along with the Alliance, other forum hosts were the Resource Development Council for Alaska, the Alaska Miners Association, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the Associated General Contractors of Alaska. Organizers said they planned to post a recording on the RDC website.
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