AFN officials bring concerns to lawmakers

Posted: Friday, February 11, 2011

The legislative season has given the Alaska Federation of Natives an opportunity to address lawmakers, as well as the public, on topics that make a difference in Alaska’s Native communities.

MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire
MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire

Two ranking AFN officials took just such an opportunity at a Native Issues Forum to emphasize two important topics to crowd packed with legislators, officials and stakeholders in Native Alaskan issues.

Sen. Albert Kookesh, who serves as the AFN’s board co-chair, took the podium to talk about the significance of Alaska’s redistricting, saying, “It’s a really important subject to those of us who are in the legislature and has to be an important subject to those of you who are in the areas that we represent.”

He said redistricting is a complex process that is more a matter of numbers than politics, which can be a problem for rural areas.

He said the preliminary 2011 estimate indicates his district will drop from around 14,000 people to 12,500, which can put the district in danger of elimination. He said the actual numbers should be out in the spring, and the redistricting board will start drawing the lines shortly after.

He said the U.S. Constitution states that we have to redraw new lines for representation every 10 years and must make the districts roughly equal in population to help guarantee that every person’s voice is represented in the legislative body.

“It’s a Constitutional principle of one man, one vote,” he said, explaining that elimination of small, declining districts is done to help keep the status quo.

Kookesh said even though the population has grown for Alaska as a whole, many areas of the Southeast, Including Juneau, have shrunk. This can be an especially big problem in rural communities.

“When 12,500 people are all that’s left in my district you have to ask yourself where did they go and why did they leave,” he said of rural areas like Hoonah and Kake.

He believes the reasons include rural Alaska’s high living costs, lack of jobs and the promise of better education in larger areas. Such costs also affect subsistence.

He said moves can be a cause of redistricting as well affecting the next round’s numbers, creating a reality that districts like his could disappear.

Kookesh noted other rural areas outside of Southeast that have also lost populations and could be in danger.

He said redistricting over the next decade will be extremely important as population changes continue. It will even determine if some districts remain at all.

Partisanship was another factor affecting redistricting, he explained. He went through the board’s five recent appointments, stating that none of them are Democrats and only one was Native.

He said this can send a signal of partisanship and could even put districts with small, rural populations at risk. He said this will also have people worrying about gerrymandering, as losing six legislature members from rural Alaska causes a loss of diversity of opinion and sends a bad signal to Natives.

Next, AFN President Julie Kitka addressed how new legislative appointments are a good sign for Alaska’s Natives, starting with Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s recent victory. Murkowski has been a strong supporter of Native issues and was endorsed by many Native groups.

Kitka encouraged the crowd that the next election cycle will be an even greater challenge to keep Murkowski in office because of a Supreme Court decision for Citizens United “which freed up the ability for corporations and others to put money into elections.” She said there is also a loophole in Citizens United which allows foreign countries and corporations to contribute to elections. She said pressure on Congress will be necessary to close such loopholes and overturn Citizens United.

“We have got to continue to do that to protect out own interests in our state, but also to protect our friends and allies that may be in other states that may become targets that some group or really wealthy individual decides they want to take that person out,” she said.

She said the state cannot afford to go back to elections without protecting its interests, saying, “Because we’re a low-population state, we’re viewed as an area in which elections can be influenced for a very small amount of money compared to other parts of the country.”

Kitka also announced relevant appointments, including Congressman Don Young as chair of the new House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, giving him charge of many Native issues in the House. She is supportive of Young’s appointment, saying he is familiar with Native issues and the subcommittee should have time for the various issues. She said the time factor had been a problem for subcommittees in previous administrations.

“The larger committee will provide so much difference to what the subcommittee does that a lot of things will kind of get rubber-stamped as we move through, so it’s very exciting to have our congressman in there,” she said.

She also announced Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) as Senate Indian Affairs Committee’s new chair. He will also join Sen. Mark Begich on the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee. She said Akaka has been a longtime friend of Alaska’s Native people and his work on these committees will be a great benefit to those here.

She also cited Native changes at the national level and sees a lot of potential for new ideas and negotiations, yet also potential for new disagreements and surprises in Congress.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.



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