Every year, Rep. Al Kookesh's resume gets a bit longer. Besides winning two terms to the state House of Representatives, the Angoon lodge owner also serves as co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives and, since June, as chairman of the board of Sealaska, the Juneau-based regional Native corporation. He's also been active in the Alaska Native Brotherhood.
But where some might see a high achiever, Republican Terry Pardee sees a man stretched too thin. Pardee, a commercial crabber and marine surveyor, said Kookesh spends so much time on Native issues he neglects other issues important to non-Native constituents.
Pardee said it's the main reason for his first try at the Legislature in a bid to unseat the Democratic incumbent in House District 5, which includes rural towns across Southeast Alaska.
"I think he's working real hard for the Natives and I think they deserve that kind of representation. But the whole district isn't made up of 100 percent Natives and other needs are being overlooked," said Pardee, 53, of Haines.
Kookesh, 51, said he resents the "accusation" that he has spent too much time on Native causes. He said the issues closest to his heart, such as education and a subsistence priority for rural residents, affect his constituents of all races. And he bristles at the notion he's neglected non-Native issues for Native concerns.
"That's a really serious accusation," Kookesh said. "What does he expect me to do? I am an Alaska Native, I can't get around that, and I think it's unfair to say that. Race should never be an issue here."
Pardee supports a rural priority for subsistence hunting and fishing and characterizes it as a "big issue." But he said until there's more support from both political parties for a rural priority, he would "hate to get wrapped around the axle over something like that."
He instead cited solid waste management and education as his top concerns. Kookesh was ineffective at stopping a legislative rewrite of the school funding formula in 1998, which has hurt rural districts, said Pardee, a Haines Borough Assembly member and school board member for two years.
The formula cuts off state funding for schools with fewer than 10 students and Pardee said it nearly shut down a school in Haines that dropped to 10 kids. The change in funding was championed by the Republican-led majority, and Kookesh, in the minority, fought in vain to defeat it.
"He's in the minority and he doesn't have the
power to override the majority I have to give him that, it's not all his fault," Pardee said. "But that makes me believe that voters should elect someone who's part of the majority. That could make a difference."
Kookesh argued the Republican majority, in its quest to cut state government, hasn't been a friend to its own members from rural districts, including Rep. Carl Morgan, an Aniak Republican.
"(Morgan) didn't agree to cuts to village public safety officers," Kookesh said. "He was in the majority and it didn't make any difference."
Besides, Kookesh said, if voters in November send a few more Democrats to the Legislature, there's a real chance Republicans will lose their stronghold in the House, allowing a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats to seize control. If that happened, Kookesh said he has the experience and contacts to be a key player.
"I think this might be the year," he said.
Kookesh said more funding for rural schools is one of his top priorities and he'll push to revise the school funding formula next session, using his relationships with Democrats and Republicans to get concessions. "Education is a priority in my life," said Kookesh, who holds a law degree.
He supports tapping permanent fund earnings to help balance the state budget, but only if voters approve it and the state enacts new taxes, such as an income tax and a sales tax.
Pardee said he's against using permanent fund earnings but wouldn't rule it out if voters favored the idea. He said the state should raise revenue through an income tax first.
Kookesh also said he'd push to get more funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System, while Pardee said state ferries should be privatized.
Campaign finance reports from the Alaska Public Offices Commission show Kookesh raised significantly more funds. Kookesh reported contributions of $13,780 by Oct. 7. Pardee raised $2,600.