Voices from the Flats – An AFN Diary. Day One.
By Elstun Lauesen
I will begin with the end of the suspense. Rumors had been hanging like streamers from the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, making the day enticing to the drama-addicted media from the far reaches of Boston and New York. The closeness of the U. S. Senate race has made Alaska interesting again. Would Joe Miller dare to show up at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention being hosted by his hometown Convention and Visitor’s Bureau? Would the rumored dissidents from the Tribal rebel resistance blow the Federation Mothership sky high? Would the delegates (many informally expressing anger at the Board of AFN for endorsing Lisa Murkowski without prior consultation and in contradiction of stated policy) object to a resolution of endorsement?
Well, on this the first day of the AFN 2010 convention, the answers are – No, no, no. And, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. This will require a bit of explanation.
The reputation of AFN as a well-oiled machine was reinforced as the moment of Lisa’s coronation approached. Was the outcome ever in doubt? One McAdams supporter stood by a bank of water coolers supplied by Alaskans Standing Together, sipping water from a cup that had “Lisa Murkowski” written on it, and had to clear a space on the table covered with “Lisa Murkowski” swag, including bracelets, fans, buttons and stickers, to put the cup down. The poor fellow was trying to find a sign of this rumored anger and dissidence. But all he could see was the scene that makes AFN one of the greatest events on earth: happy people glad to see old friends, brought together in a celebration of community, life and love.
If this fellow—or the media folks who journeyed here from elsewhere—understood the deeper purposes of AFN, they would not be so obsessed with ratification or endorsements. In 2008, the clear embrace of the corporate presence at AFN was for “Uncle” Ted Stevens; but on Election Day, the villages delivered a sea of blue for Mark Begich. In 2006 Diane Benson stood and delivered a challenge to entrenched corporate favorite, incumbent congressman Don Young. Benson did this, by the way, when other perceived ‘stronger’ Democratic candidates ran for cover and refused to challenge Young. Benson was excluded from the podium despite the fact that Young, a member of the congressional delegation, was allowed to campaign wearing the thin disguise of ‘reporting’ to the convention. The excuse at the time from President Julie Kitka and her convention manager, Mike Irwin, was that AFN did not endorse, or do ‘politics’. A challenge was elicited from the floor and a group of Benson supporters won her 5 minutes in front of the convention to say her piece. And, in one of the most brilliant and audacious maneuvers I have ever witnessed in Alaska politics, Benson was ushered to the stage surrounded by a squad of Native Alaskan veterans. In traditional Tlingit fashion, Benson delivered a story that lasted far longer than five minutes, as the veterans kept a jittery Mike Irwin at bay. At the end, she received a standing ovation and on Election Day, she carried a large portion of Village Alaska.
So the point here is that it is hard to say what, exactly, Lisa Murkowski gained today. I say this in part because the sheer inevitability of it diminishes its impact.
I mean, every Alaska Native Claims Act Regional Corporation announced 10 days before a convention of an organization largely funded by those same corporations, that they were putting close to a million dollars into the Lisa Murkowski write-in effort. This is the aforementioned SuperPAC “Alaskans Standing Together” that produced all the swag and goodies that littered the Carlson Center. Every aging rock star from the History of ANCSA who had been blessed by the Godfather Ted Stevens had already lined up behind Lisa Murkowski to support her dubious write-in campaign.
Originally, the plan was to hold a candidate forum among the three candidates on Frida, and then on Saturday the resolution of support for an endorsement would be held. I know that within the Scott McAdams camp, there was excitement over the prospect of being able to face off with Lisa Murkowski in front of rural delegates. Scott’s strong support of Tribes, his bona fides among rural school boards, and his own embrace of Southeast Native culture. as well as his wife and children’s tribal membership gave him an excellent entre to challenge Lisa Murkowski and her sketchy record as a member of the obstructionist, anti-Obama Republican leadership.
Well, AFN leadership includes some of the smartest political players in Alaska. They had good reason to fear a McAdams-Murkowski debate. Note that in the world of AFN, Joe Miller is not even a factor other than as a convenient object of fear that helps to obscure the dismal performance of their choice, Lisa Murkowski. It is clear to all that the real battle November 2nd is between Scott McAdams and Lisa Murkowski. Joe Miller (according to current polling data) is dropping like a rock.
Magically, the ‘well-oiled’ machine announced the elimination of the U.S. Senate candidate forum that was supposed to occur on Friday. This was announced before the opening ceremonies of the convention. Why? Joe Miller would not commit (is that a surprise?) and Lisa would not be ‘available’ due to a scheduling conflict. As the Church Lady on SNL would say: “Isn’t THAT con-ven-ient?” This generated predictable grumbling amongst a few delegates, but (the well-oiled machine correctly predicted) no action. Then this morning, the agenda noted one other change. Right after Lisa’s “report” (a la Don Young, 2006) to the delegates, the resolution considering the endorsement of Lisa Murkowski would be taken up. And was there any doubt of the outcome when, just before the “Report” by Lisa, Byron Mallot (co-chair of Murkowski’s campaign) who is a Fellow with the First Alaska Institute run by Janie Leask (Lisa Supporter) delivered a commentary to the convention? The commentary was a stem-winding exegesis that framed the introduction of the object of all this orchestration by the AFN Board and Staff.
The convention that could not find room in its schedule for a forum was treated to an hour of Lisa Murkowski’s rebuttal to the McAdams’ campaign challenges of her record on rural Alaska, her apologia for failures and her sycophantic identification with humbleness and struggle – this child of a banker.
And in the end, it all came off as expected. None of the fireworks or challenges were launched against this first exercise of control by the corporate agents of AFN; Lisa was affirmed without objection.
So what does this all mean?
I draw your attention to the back of the convention center. About 20 minutes into Lisa’s oration, the audience (save the True Believers) began to drift away from their seats to go forage for a snack or a soda. Many of those began to congregate around a large man wearing a Southeast Alaska Clan shirt decorated with buttons and a Killer Whale decoration. He moved slowly and confidently through the crowd. Couples asked to have their picture taken with him. He moved from one group to the next. While Lisa wound her way through a somewhat tortured speech—at one point losing her way in the text to spontaneous applause from the accommodating audience—Scott McAdams, whose Tribal name means “Boat-Sized Killer Whale” seems comfortable with everything that his staff seemed a bit uncomfortable with. He trolled the crowed gathering good wishes like his namesake might gather krill. After the passage of the endorsement, I went over to McAdams and asked him what he thought about the endorsement, which I called a ‘coronation’. He smiled an said (I paraphrase) “…coronations are conferred; votes are earned. I’m not going anywhere”. At which point he turned to the friendly crowd waiting to meet him.
Tomorrow: VILLAGE SURVIVAL!
Elstun Lauesen is a lifelong Alaskan who has worked for 30 years as a rural develpment specialist, including in Western Alaska. He will be reporting for The Mudflats from the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Fairbanks.
Photographs by Ronn Murray of Ronn Murray Photography in Fairbanks.