For Democrat Benson, rural life is better

Posted: Sunday, October 17, 2010

ANCHORAGE - The finances of Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Diane Benson couldn't be more different from those of GOP counterpart Mead Treadwell.

Last year, her largest source of income was over $14,000 in alimony. She also made $6,300 as an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. All told she reported about $26,000 coming in from various sources, including small dividends from Native corporations, according to her state financial disclosure form. Benson is Tlingit. Candidates don't have to list sources who paid less than $1,000.

Benson, 55, said her finances are not as interesting as those of Treadwell or most of the other candidates. "I live on a prayer and a dime," she said.

For her successful primary run this summer, she spent about $48,000. She put $1,000 of her own money into the race then raised enough after the election to pay herself back and cover everything else her campaign owed as of Oct. 1. She's on the Democratic ticket with governor candidate Ethan Berkowitz, who was carrying about $11,000 in campaign debt as of Oct. 1. He owes rent money for his campaign office, which is in a building he owns on H Street downtown.

Benson has lived in the same spot in Chugiak since 1993, improving a mobile home until it "evolved into a house," she said. Her mortgage is less than what a one-bedroom apartment in Mountain View would cost, she said. She's on well water, her appliances all run on gas, and her place is well insulated. Her Dodge Dakota is paid off.

"I live rural. I haul my own dirt out there," she said. "I work hard."

Her ex-husband, Tony Vita, usually pays her mortgage, and also provides support, under the terms of their divorce settlement, she said. They are close - he served as her campaign treasurer for the primary.

She didn't list Vita as a source of income on the state disclosure form she filed in February. Benson originally said that Vita probably didn't provide much support in 2009. Last Monday she said she didn't realize alimony had to be listed. Vita said it was his oversight. He sent a corrected disclosure to the Alaska Public Offices Commission the same day.

The $14,361 reflects what he paid for the mortgage as well as direct financial support, Vita said.

"I do live very modestly, and I'm fine with that," Benson said. "Learning how to live that modestly has benefits in how you handle money. I don't take money for granted by any means."

Benson worked on the trans-Alaska pipeline project in the mid-1970s as a truck driver. She ran a talent agency in the 1990s. She played the role of Tlingit civil rights leader Elizabeth Peratrovich in the movie "For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska" and received a writing credit.

Berkowitz said if they are elected, he would tap Benson to work on veterans' and domestic violence issues, in addition to the usual duties of a lieutenant governor overseeing elections and the use of the state seal.

"She's been a voice, and continues to be a voice, for people who often don't get voices in the political process," Berkowitz said. "She adds something to this ticket."

Benson said she is a survivor of repeated sexual assault and abuse, and she has spoken publicly at conferences about her own history. Young women who have been traumatized by abuse may feel hopeless, she said.

"I feel like they just don't have enough examples sometimes of somebody who has actually been down the same path as they have," Benson said. Her role is to show "you can do something, you can have dignity, and you can make a mark in the world.

Her son, Latseen Benson, lost his legs in the Iraq war. He lives in Texas but recently was selected to train in Austria as a ski racer. Ms. Benson also serves on volunteer boards and committees, including several related to veterans.

"It's where my heart is, both those issues," Benson said.

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