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Murkowski, Miller and the Sealaska bill

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2010

In elections since being appointed to the U.S. Senate, Ketchikan-born Lisa Murkowski has drawn strong support from Southeast Alaska, especially in the logging communities of southern Southeast.

In 2010, however, those supporters weren't there for her the way they'd been in the past.

Throughout Southeast, Murkowski didn't get the same big boosts she's gotten in the past, with her margin compared to the rest of the state. In Ketchikan, Murkowski did better than Tea Party-backed Joe Miller by 9 percent more than elsewhere in the state, but not as well as she'd done in 2004.

Then, facing another primary challenge from her right from a candidate from the Interior, coincidentally also named Miller, she won by 13 percent more in Ketchikan than statewide. In that race she faced Mike Miller and two other challengers.

One issue that might have played a role this year: The Sealaska Lands Bill, now being considered in Congress.

That bill would change the lands which Sealaska, the Southeast Regional Native Corp., could select from the federal government, though it wouldn't get any additional land beyond what it is already due.

Some neighbors, including on Prince of Wales Island, have opposed that, fearing that land near their homes might be logged or have use restricted.

Among the hints that the lands bill might have played a role are the primary election returns from Aug. 24.

In Thorne Bay, once the world's largest logging camp, voters switched from being big Murkowski supporters in 2004 to backing Miller this year.

In Coffman Cove, another logging camp town converting to tourism, voters who had once given Murkowski massive margins instead voted for Miller in 2010.

Among the concerns some residents have expressed about the Sealaska bill are loss of access to currently public lands near them if they move to private ownership by the Native corporation.

Writing at HuffingtonPost.com, author and attorney Donald Craig Mitchell noted that Southeast is not a hotbed of the kind of conservatism that fueled Miller elsewhere.

New voters that came out to support Miller may have been driving by a desire to "punish" Murkowski for her prominent backing of the Sealaska bill, he wrote.

Some in Southeast considered the bill an "unjustified land grab," Mitchell wrote, and noted Murkowski had been an unapologetic defender of Sealaska's overreaching."

"I don't think it was a statewide issue, but it was a big deal on Prince of Wales Island and it probably cost her some votes in those communities and it probably cost her some votes in Juneau," said Wayne Regelin, president of Territorial Sportsmen.

Sealaska spokesman Todd Antioquoa said he doubted the issue played much of a role in the Murkowski-Miller contest, but said it may have also brought some benefit to the senator.

"She showed vision and real leadership in sponsoring the bill in the first place, and being a very consistent supporter of it," he said.

The 2010 election results show that in some predominately Native communities, such as Angoon, Hoonah, Saxman and Metlakatla, Murkowski increased her support in 2010.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, doubted the Sealaska issue played much of a role in the Senate race.

"I don't think it had too much impact," she said. "I could be wrong, but I didn't hear a lot of talk about it."

While Murkowski's position on the bill was well known, it didn't figure in the pro-Miller advertising funded by the Tea Party Express.

At one point during the campaign, Miller publicly questioned the Senate bill, saying it favored some constituent groups at the expense of others.

That led to an angry response from Sealaska President Chris McNeal Jr., calling Miller's comments "uninformed."

Robert Dillon, Republican Communications Director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he was surprised to have heard Miller oppose the bill.

"The lands bill is exactly what Miller says he wants to do, it's putting more government land in private hands," Dillon said.

Dillon said it was unlikely there would be any action taken on the Sealaska bill before the end of Murkowski's term of office. If it were to move, it would likely to be as part of an omnibus lands bill, but with only five legislative weeks left that's unlikely to happen, he said.

Though the bill is co-sponsored by all three members of the Alaska Delegation, the real impact of Miller's victory may be the loss of the clout of the ranking Republican member of the important committee. And were Republicans to take control of the Senate, that would have left Murkowski in line to be its chair.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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