Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Alaska Senate race is a real test of Native policy

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, shops at Alaska Federation of Natives convention last week. Election dolls with messages of support for candidates and ballot measures. The AFN board endorsed Sen. Mark Begich for re-election. The dolls are sold by Ursla Irvin from Chevak, Alaska.

I have to confess: I hate most political advertising. There is this idea in American politics that the best way to win is to knock the other person down.

Alaska is a case in point where misleading ads about character are common. An ad for Republican candidate Dan Sullivan complains that Senator Mark Begich is “pretending to ride” a snow machine. Or on the flip side: A Begich ad that tied Sullivan to the early release of a sex offender who then went on to commit murder (that ad is no longer used).

We’ve been trained, as consumers, to use this as a framework for making our decision — at least most of us. The thinking goes like this: Hard-core Democrats will vote their way, committed Republicans will stick with their guy, so it’s these character ads that are designed to reach out to people in the middle. I do get that. It’s even ok to use character ads where the candidates define themselves, such as several on Sullivan’s military record or others about Begich’s frugal nature.

But it’s public policy that matters.

There are real policy political differences between Mark Begich and Dan Sullivan. And we would be better off if the campaigns fought over those distinct issues, not character.

On issues that matter to Alaska Natives the issues are serious and the divide is stark. So it’s not really a surprise that the Alaska Federation of Natives board met last week in private before endorsing Begich’s re-election. It’s rare for AFN to endorse candidates, although not unprecedented (such as Senator Lisa Murkowski’s unlikely write-in re-election bid four years ago.)

So let’s focus on policy. Their differences are mostly about one thing: The role of the federal government.

At the top of the list for Alaska Natives has to be a commitment to subsistence, protecting the hunting, fishing and gathering rights of native people who’ve lived on the land for thousands of years longer than any modern nation.

Last week at AFN, Begich was clear about his stand when he said that subsistence is “a right you own, its inherent, not granted.” If that logical argument was carried to conclusion it would place Alaska Native hunting and fishing on par with treaty rights for tribes in lower 48. That’s critical because it’s because of treaties that states like Washington have had success with tribal co-management of species, improving the resource for everybody.

Sullivan, on the other hand, unsuccessfully tried to walk a fine line. He told AFN that he supports subsistence but was the state attorney general who pressed the Katie John case when it could have been over. His argument is that the issue is about federal overreach and that the state, not the federal government, could bring about a subsistence regime. That’s a tough sell. So much so that at one point AFN’s audience booed Sullivan’s response.

The AFN voter guide lists other differences between the two candidates about the role of the federal government. Sullivan supports a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, saying that he also recognizes that law includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. So, how do you repeal one without the other? How could there be full funding for the Indian health system in this political environment?

Begich has a track record on these issues. He held up the confirmation of Yvette Roubideaux as the director of Indian Health Service in order to win support for contract cost reimbursements. Actually, he did more than that. He was a bull dog on this issue, using any avenue in Washington to bring about a result beneficial to the Alaska Native constituents.

The list of philosophical differences about government goes on and on. Some like the idea that Sullivan would let tribal development occur with less federal regulation, again, that idea that this election is about paring back Washington.

Then again, it might work for a national audience to talk about the overreach of the federal government. But in Indian Country that’s a much more complex stand because so often the federal government protects tribal interests against state overreach.

The best thing about Election Day next week is the internet and TV ads will vanish. And then we can agree again that most of political candidates are fine characters who happen to disagree about public policy. There’s plenty to argue about.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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