ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Federation of Natives will not endorse a candidate for governor this year.
The question never came to the floor at the annual convention, which in itself speaks volumes, said AFN Chief of Staff Mike Irwin. The largest annual gathering of Native people in the state ended Saturday.
"Year in and year out, when the stakes are very high, the Alaska Native community understands the importance of its own voice, and it realizes it has to use that voice responsibly, carefully and in the best interest of everyone involved," Irwin told the Anchorage Daily News.
The stakes were particularly high this year, said Irwin and several other delegates. Two gubernatorial candidates, Diane Benson of the Green Party and Don Wright of the Alaskan Independence Party, are Alaska Natives.
Democrat Fran Ulmer had the strongest support of convention delegates, if political button counts and applause during speeches are any indication.
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But Republican Frank Murkowski also has numerous Native supporters. And because he will be either Alaska's next governor or continue as its junior U.S. senator, some delegates feared endorsing any other candidate would put the AFN in a no-win situation.
Only once in its 36-year history has the convention supported a candidate - Democrat Tony Knowles in his 1994 gubernatorial bid. Convention rules intentionally make the endorsement process difficult, Irwin said. It takes 75 percent of delegates just to bring to the floor the question of making an endorsement.
The question never made it to first base during the convention. After concluding business, co-chairman Albert Kookesh gave delegates 15 minutes to caucus "on the subject you all know," he said.
When they reconvened, Kookesh, a Democrat representing rural Southeast in the state Legislature, asked whether anyone had final business before adjournment. No one did, and the convention ended.
The silence was little surprise, Irwin said. Unless the votes are there to bring the issue to the floor, "we don't go into endorsements. And we know how to count our numbers."
The outcome satisfied some delegates on both sides of the aisle. Ulmer supporter John Reft of Kodiak said it would have been "embarrassing to pick one of two. I think it was a good move."
Murkowski supporter Marie Stewman of Anchorage agreed. "I don't think AFN should support one party, because it can cause problems in our unity," she said.
Others such as Buddy Brown, president of Tanana Chiefs Conference and an Ulmer supporter, were disappointed.
"There was darn near unanimous consent for Ulmer," he said. "It's unfortunate we let procedure burden our decision-making process."