As recall effort looms, can Gov. Dunleavy ease tensions with Alaska Native groups?

Alaska gubernatorial candidate Mike Dunleavy answers questions during a candidate forum Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, at the Alaska Federation of Natives in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Tripp J Crouse/KNBA)

In Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s first few months in office this year, the Republican traded shots with the state’s primary Alaska Native advocacy group, the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Dunleavy’s budget proposed cuts to programs important to Alaska Native groups – to rural law enforcement, payments to senior citizens and health care. AFN’s leaders strenuously objected, and amid the months-long fight over the budget, one Native corporation endorsed the campaign to recall him.

The campaign’s application is currently in limbo, awaiting a decision on its legality by Dunleavy’s attorney general, Kevin Clarkson.

But, with that recall fight looming, this week’s AFN convention could preview some of Dunleavy’s next steps when it comes his relationship with an important voting bloc.

By moderating some of his more severe budget positions, he could stave off broader support for his recall among Alaska Native groups, political observers said. But if he sticks to them, he could risk an aggressive campaign against him.

“The Native interests of the state have a tremendous amount of votes, a tremendous amount of money,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, an Anchorage political consultant. “The question is: can Dunleavy change his spots?”

In a prepared statement, a spokesman for Dunleavy, Jeff Turner, said the governor is looking forward to sharing his “experience, knowledge and perspective” at the convention. And the administration still sees a number of areas of potential partnership with the Native community and tribal entities, said John Moller, the governor’s Alaska Native and rural affairs advisor.

Moller pointed to an existing compact on child welfare and protection between the state and Native groups, and said the administration is interested in exploring a new one on education.

“The doors aren’t closed and they never were closed,” said Moller, an Alaska Native who’s originally from Unalaska. “However people come to those conclusions is their business. But nonetheless, I’m hoping for a great AFN.”

In interviews, Alaska Native leaders said that things remain tense with Dunleavy’s administration.

The governor has vetoed line-items important to AFN, like assistance payments to municipalities and money for Village Public Safety Officers, who police rural areas.

A tribal advisory committee created by Dunleavy’s predecessor, independent Gov. Bill Walker, has stopped meeting. And in August, CIRI, the Anchorage-based Alaska Native Regional Corporation, endorsed the Dunleavy recall campaign, saying the governor’s actions were “harming all Alaskans and threatening the state’s business environment.”

Melanie Bahnke runs a Nome-based tribal organization called Kawerak and had a widely-publicized confrontation with Dunleavy when he visited Nome earlier this year. In an interview this week, she said her group has invited Dunleavy’s administration to work with them, but gotten little traction.

“That invitation still stands, with all state agencies and the governor. We extended that invitation when he was here,” she said. “But there hasn’t been much knocking on our doors.”

AFN’s annual convention begins Thursday in Fairbanks with the theme, “Good Government, Alaska Driven” – which many see as a swipe at the governor. The convention program says Dunleavy “tested the bounds” of that principle this year, and its agenda includes several sessions that question the governor’s policies.

Next year’s theme is set, too, with a nod toward the 2020 election: “Good Government, Alaska Decides.”

Julie Kitka, AFN’s president, said the themes are less about targeting the governor personally and more about articulating a different vision for state government.

“What we’re having trouble with, as a state, is setting our priorities. And so our ‘Good Government, Alaska Driven,’ our ‘Good Government, Alaska Decides’ is about a call to action for people to be engaged in setting the priorities for the state,” she said. “We did not feel that our ideas and issues and concerns were taken seriously by the new administration.”

Kitka and other Native leaders said that AFN, which arose amid a land claims fight in U.S. Congress in the 1960s and 1970s, has been making a new effort to engage with state government in Alaska after decades of focus on the federal government.

The organization made a major push in Juneau in the past several years lobbying lawmakers to approve and preserve criminal justice reform, since Alaska Natives are overrepresented in the state’s prisons. And since Dunleavy took office in December, AFN has been pressing his administration and the Legislature to preserve programs important to its members and rural Alaska residents.

The group’s leaders, Kitka said, have developed a “new appreciation of the important role of state government, and for it to function well.”

This week’s convention will largely be focused on policy. But the looming question is a political one — whether Dunleavy will find a way to repair his relationship with AFN and other Native groups before a final decision on whether to let the recall campaign move forward. Clarkson’s decision, either way it goes, is widely expected to be appealed to the courts, meaning that it’s likely to be many months before the recall can move forward, if at all.

Support from Native and rural interests can be pivotal both because they make up a swing voting bloc – and because Alaska’s regional Native corporations are big businesses that can be deep-pocketed donors to campaigns.

Those corporations can be slow about taking political stances, Lottsfeldt said, and so far CIRI is the only one to take a formal position on the recall. But many more corporations took action in 2010, when they and AFN raised more than a million dollars to help Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski win a write-in campaign over Tea Party candidate Joe Miller.

“They try to stay above the fray,” Lottsfeldt said. But, he added: “There’s times when they see certain existential crisis, and the nomination of Joe Miller to the U.S. Senate clearly was one of them. They’ll have to decide whether they’re at one of those moments in time again.”

Dunleavy is set to deliver a 15-minute speech at the convention Thursday morning, and Moller, the governor’s advisor, will appear on a panel later at the convention. He described the administration’s relationship with the Native community as an evolving one.

“With any administration, you start off with relationships that are more mature than others,” he said. “I’m doing what I can in the areas that I have any kind of knowledge in. And we continue on trying to develop all of the relationships with Alaskans.”

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