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The Legislature's quiet guy: Kookesh

Colleagues call Angoon Democrat a consensus-builder

Posted: Monday, December 12, 2005

In a new legislative session that could turn into a bloodbath of politics and money, it could be interesting to watch Albert Kookesh.

Though he holds some powerful jobs in Alaska, the Angoon Democrat is one of the quieter people in the Legislature.

At 250,000 square miles, Kookesh serves the largest - and among the most rural - legislative district in the United States.

Kookesh doesn't have his name in capital letters at the front of many bills.

But his colleagues explain his strength isn't in putting out his own opinion.

He's a skilled consensus-builder, they say.

"I often bring difficult problems to him. ... He has the nature of a problem solver," said Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Kitka credits Kookesh for linking AFN up with the national civil rights movement in the late 1990s.

At that time, Kookesh made a compelling case to U.S. civil rights leaders of the need to protect Native's subsistence hunting and fishing way of life, Kitka said.

AFN is now on the board and heavily involved in projects of joint interest - such as government contracts for disadvantaged groups - with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Kitka said.

In the 1970s, Kookesh was one of the first modern Tlingits in Alaska to get a law degree.

He is better known in the Native community, however, for his role in winning a lot of Southeast Alaska basketball tournaments.

Instead of going into law, Kookesh returned to his Angoon home and worked as a commercial fisherman.

But Kookesh took on a large array of leadership positions in the Native community, including over the years: Kootzoowoo Inc., based in Angoon; Sealaska Corp. in Juneau.; the Alaska Native Brotherhood; and the AFN.

Today, he works as both chairman of the board of Sealaska and co-chairman of the AFN.

With a large amount of geography to cover as a state legislator, Kookesh has logged 180,000 miles on Alaska Airlines since May 2005.

He has not visited every single village (there are 126) in his district, but villagers even from outside his district end up in his office.

"Because I'm an Alaska Native, there are people outside my district who just want to come in and see us," Kookesh said.

His aide, Nancy Barnes, said their goal is to make sure that the rural areas of Alaska get as much attention as the urban.

"That's where the greatest need is ... in the rural districts," Kookesh said.

He has a soft spot for communities, such as Metlakatla, that aren't preoccupied by vicious internal battles like so many other Alaska towns.

"They are working real hard to improve their community," Kookesh said of Metlakatla, noting the town's spruced-up buildings, new fish plant and health clinic.

It could be hard to stay on the sidelines during this legislative session, which will likely include heavily partisan, election-season bomb-throwing and strife over big capital projects, such as multimillion-dollar bridges and the Alaska gas pipeline.

Ask Kookesh about any of these hot-button topics, and you're likely to get either the unexpected or the pragmatic reply.

For instance, on the controversial road to connect Juneau to a ferry terminal just short of Skagway, Kookesh had the following to say:

"For years, I was favoring a railroad. I feel it would have had more support, and the footprint isn't as big.

"I don't know. ... I think the political reality is that it is going to be in the courts before they even build Mile 1," Kookesh said.

And on the gas pipeline:

"I would love to see more open negotiations. ... I'm a bit puzzled why they are not doing it in the open," he said.

"I just want to see (a pipeline)," whether it runs through Alaska or Canada, "I'm willing to be convinced what's in our best interest," Kookesh said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com



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