State Rep. Sharon Cissna is seen working on the Sheldon Jackson campus in Sitka during a visit in May. (File photo by Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

State Rep. Sharon Cissna hopes to drop the word “state” from her title. The seven-term Anchorage Democrat is running for Congress, and giving interviews across the state in an effort to be known before November’s general election.

In the grand scheme of Sharon Cissna’s life, running for Congress wasn’t really in the plan.

“Really not a burning goal of mine for a lifetime,” she said in an interview with KCAW.

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But none the less, she’s the Democrat running against longtime Republican Congressman Don Young in November’s general election. Cissna joined the legislature in 1998, but she who drew national attention in 2011 after refusing a pat-down by TSA officers at Seatac Airport in Seattle.

“Yet again, because I’m a cancer survivor, and I have the scars that prove it, I was again highlighted by the scanner,” she said. “They told me I had to have the physical exam. And I said no.”

It took Cissna more than three days to return to Alaska aboard the state ferry. She testified before Congress about her experience, and developed a group of legislators from around the country to introduce TSA-related bills in their respective states.

“Congress is beginning to look at it, but it needs someone that is a Congressperson to really fight the fight from within,” she said. “I do a fairly decent job of it.”

But even though her opposition to TSA procedures might be her claim to notoriety, she says it’s not the centerpiece of her campaign. Instead, she says she’s focusing on what she’s hearing from residents as she travels the state.

“What we’re hearing everywhere is that people are feeling as if a lot of the freedoms and the protections that were there for them have disappeared,” she said. “Alaska residents don’t have the kind of voice. Fishermen – boy, in Bethel, that’s what we were hearing there. In Sitka, that’s what we were hearing there. We’ve heard it everywhere that people are feeling as if they lost their voice.”

In May and June, Cissna visited many Southeast communities, including Sitka. We asked her about hydropower – arguably one of the region’s biggest issues. It’s not considered a renewable resource by the federal government. She says changing that will start at the community level and stretch all the way up to the halls of Congress.

Cissna: “We all really need to be working together, and those layers of leadership need to really be right-tied to all of the different steps.”
KCAW: “But do you think there’s a way to convince a federal agency, like the EPA, that hydro should be considered renewable, at least in the context of alpine hydro, here in Alaska?”
Cissna: “I don’t see any reason why we can’t make that happen. But what really needs to happen to make that possible is to have that kind of interlayered discussion, where you’re getting the grass roots fighting right along with all of the higher leaders, and then it’s obvious that it’s a diverse grouping, that people have really worked everything through, so that you’ve got united support.”

She says that’s the case too for the Sealaska lands selection legislation. Two bills – one in the House and one in the Senate – have been closely watched and hotly debated by Southeast residents. The measure would convey thousands of acres to Sealaska Corporation.

Cissna admits she hasn’t been following the bill very closely, and says she wants to broaden the conversation in order to get the measure heard in Washington, D.C.

“The only way we’re going to really do that is to get some of the urban centers in the state to really understand what rural areas are really up against,” Cissna said. “We, often times, don’t look at and don’t understand what really is being fought for. On that one, it’s getting the rest of the nation to understand, after Alaskans understand, what’s really at stake here.”

In running for Congress, Cissna joins a long line of Democrats who have challenged Don Young, Alaska’s sole Congressman for nearly 40 years. We asked her how she liked her odds.

“I tend to not really think about that too much,” she said. “The electorate has a choice. I am not going to be raising millions of dollars, and that’s what the person who has that seat right this minute actually has. I’m not going to put my time and energy into that. I’m going to put my time and energy into really working on solutions, really understanding why we’d be trying to have solutions.”

State Rep. Sharon Cissna and U.S. Rep. Don Young are scheduled to face off in a debate on our airwaves the night of Oct. 29. We’ll have details soon.