Local News

New Legislature has no Tlingit lawmakers

Southeast lost both its Tlingit lawmakers during this year’s legislative elections.

It’s the first time in at least two decades that the region has been without Native representation.

One is Haines’ Bill Thomas, who served in the Legislature since 2005, representing many rural, Native communities. The other is Angoon’s Albert Kookesh, who did much of the same, starting in 1997.

But when the Legislature gavels in Jan. 15th, both Tlingit leaders will be gone.

“Loosing the Native representation, we just don’t know how much impact that will have. But it can’t be without impact,” says Klawock’s Dennis Demmert, former director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Native Studies Program. He’s also been active in the Alaska Native Brotherhood and other groups.

The Southeast legislative boundaries used in the 2012 elections. Courtesy Alaska Redistricting Board.

He’s optimistic the candidates who defeated Kookesh and Thomas will do their best to act on Native concerns.

“Bert Stedman certainly has a track record of representing constituents well. And Jonathan (Kreiss-Tomkins) made it a point to do a lot of campaigning in the villages,” he says.

But Demmert says some things will be missed.

“It’s simply not possible, so far as I can see, for two men who are non-Native to have the perspective of Native people,” he says. “There are needs that we have and priorities we are aware of from living our lives in villages that they can observe and see. But they can’t experience it the way we have.”

Jerry Mackie, who is Haida from Craig, was the lawmaker for much of rural Southeast from 1991 through the year 2000. He’s now a lobbyist and hockey-team owner in Anchorage.

“I think it’s felt by the Native community as a significant loss of representation. Certainly it’s natural for the Native community in Southeast to feel that going from two legislators to zero would certainly be a loss,” Mackie says.

Tlingit Bill Williams of Saxman overlapped with Mackie and Kookesh, as the House member from Ketchikan from 1993 through 2002.

In all, Southeast has been represented by Native lawmakers for 22 straight years. That ends when the new Legislature gavels into session.

The question is, why? There’s fund-raising differences, personalities and political histories. But many say the answer is redistricting.

“Any redistricting must be in compliance with the various requirements of the act. For example, you cannot dilute the strength of minority voters,” says Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska.

His group, and the Native American Rights Fund, are fighting a state effort to eliminate federal review of legislative boundary changes. That would cut out federal protections for Native voting strength.

He won’t go as far as saying the latest effort targeted any particular group. But …

“There are always efforts by political parties and elected officials to game the system,” he says.

Redistricting moved Kookesh into a district with fewer villages and larger cities, where voters were used to electing Bert Stedman. It made fewer changes to Thomas’ district, but did add Sitka, where winner Kreiss-Tomkins grew up and is well-known.

Redistricting board chairman John Torgerson could not be reached for immediate comment.

But the panel has said protecting Native voting strength was a top – and legally mandated – priority. Members also pointed out that that doesn’t mean crafting boundaries to guarantee a particular lawmaker’s win.

“I’m really concerned about a voice, not only of Natives, but of everybody in coastal Alaska,” says Juneau Senator Dennis Egan, one of Southeast’s six remaining lawmakers.

He says he and the other legislators know the region well and will do their best to address Native concerns.

Former lawmaker Mackie says cooperation will strengthen the region’s overall voice.

“Southeast legislators have always traditionally worked together to look out for the region. And that’s still the case today, after this election. And where we’ve lost experience and where we’ve lost seats in sheer numbers, it’s going to be incumbent on them to work together even more so now,” Mackie says.

Southeast’s legislative district boundaries may not be final. The region’s portion of the statewide plan will undergo further consideration before the 2014 election.

Other Southeast Alaska Native lawmakers in the territorial and state legislatures include:

  • William Paul Sr. of Ketchikan, the first Native elected to the Alaska Territorial Legislature, in 1924.
  • Frank Peratrovich of Klawock, first elected in 1944.
  • Andrew Hope of Sitka, first elected in 1944.
  • Frank G. Johnson of Kake, first elected in 1946.
  • Alfred Widmark of Klawock, first elected in 1961.
  • Frank See of Hoonah, first elected in 1964.
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