Stateline Story

Alaska Senate District Tests Candidates Stamina

  • October 17, 2002
  • By Bill McAllister
In Alaska's Senate District C, the rigors of campaigning probably exceed what even presidential candidates must endure.

Before post-Census redistricting, the district already was the largest, most geographically sprawling political unit in any state.Yet because of population losses in rural areas since 1990, it was expanded to get near the "ideal" size of about 30,000 residents.

Now, at more than 240,000 square miles, it's nearly as big as Texas, with more than 1,000 miles separating constituents at many points. The terrain includes arctic tundra, several mountain ranges and a rainforest.

For incumbent Democratic state Sen. Georgianna Lincoln and Republican challenger Mac Carter, the campaign is built on getting from place to place. With 149 communities in the district, mobility becomes more important than ideology or issues.

"The perfect example is Kake," says Carter, referring to a small island village in the district. "They've never had a senator that's run come through their community. They were just overwhelmed and shocked when they got the call I was coming."

Comprising about half of Alaska, District C forms a misshapen horseshoe hanging over the "Railbelt," the heavily populated stretch from Seward on the Kenai Peninsula through Anchorage and up to the end of the Alaska Railroad in Fairbanks.

Redistricting added the so-called "Iceworm" area in the fjords of the Alaskan panhandle, a region known as the Southeast. It consists of three dozen small coastal and island communities, most unconnected to the highway system and thus dependent upon ferry, barge and air traffic.

To get from Interior Alaska to that part of the district by road, candidates must drive several hundred miles through Canada before re-entering the state. Proceeding beyond the termination of the two-lane highway at Haines or Skagway, the choice is a slow ferry connection or an expensive series of flights to reach other towns in the district.

With the geographical separation comes cultural and political divisiveness.

Three-fourths of Alaskans live in the Railbelt. Its dominance of state politics has resulted in an "urban-rural divide" that is a source of bitterness in Bush Alaska, where about half the residents are Alaska Natives.

Sen. Lincoln is an Athabascan; Carter is white.

In many of the Interior villages, including Lincoln's hometown of Rampart (pop. 45) on the Yukon River, there is very little cash economy. Although running water and wastewater treatment are becoming more common, many villagers, including the senator, rely on "honeybuckets" for household sewage disposal. Some must rely on wood stoves to ward off winter temperatures as low as minus-83.

Aside from the politics of it, the nature of Bush Alaska makes staying in touch a monumental chore. And an expensive one.

"I was acutely brought into the awareness of what that meant, in serving Southeast, when I went in and purchased a ticket, and they said $863," Lincoln said, recalling her trip to Metlakatla, near the southern border of Alaska. "I said, 'What?' I purchased this ticket two weeks in advance. My God, I could travel anywhere in the world for that."

The phenomenal cost of in-state air fare isn't the only problem for candidates. There's also the weather, particularly in the often cloudy and rain-drenched Tongass National Forest of Southeast.

Alaska, with its challenging topography and volatile meteorological conditions, consistently leads the nation in airplane crashes. In 1972, a small aircraft carrying Alaska's sole congressman, Nick Begich, and the U.S. House majority leader, Hale Boggs, disappeared on an Anchorage-to-Juneau campaign flight. The wreckage and bodies were never found.

Safety often means delay. Lincoln's trip to Metlakatla was extended when airplanes were weathered in. Instead, she made a boat connection to Ketchikan, where she flew out on Alaska Airlines. It took her nearly a week to make the round trip back to her home.

Campaign etiquette in the Bush also contributes to lengthy trips.

"They don't expect you to go in and spend 15 minutes and you're out of there, or an hour and you're out of there," Lincoln said. "That's rather insulting. They expect you to spend the night."

Carter, from the tiny town of Central (pop. 134), northeast of Fairbanks, saw his wife and home twice in one recent two-month period of the campaign.

Although he's a pilot who has a Cessna 150, there are still hardships in travel. In the Bush, there are few hotels.

"We pitched a tent and slept under the wing of the airplane," Carter recalled of one jaunt to Tanana, Ruby, Greely, Holy Cross, Russian Mission, Sleetmute and McGrath. "We listened to the wolves howl every night. ...

"I just take it in stride. That's the kind of person I am."

Lincoln, a 10-year incumbent who is one of Alaska's 20 senators, has developed her own network within the district, so she generally has a home to stay in. But the traveling has taken a physical toll.

"I have three stitches on the corner of my left eye," she said. "When I was in Galena several years ago, I was thinking I was in my own bed. I heard my alarm go off, I went to turn it off. I was staying with a friend who had a sharp table right beside the bed. When I went to turn the alarm off, I ended up rolling off the bed and hitting my eye on the table."

The candidates, despite their relentless schedules, know they won't make it to every community.

"I haven't even counted them," Lincoln said of her campaign stops so far. "If I counted them, I probably would get discouraged. One year, I tried to get to every one of my 94 communities (under the previous district lines), and I traveled steady for three months without ever getting back to my own bed. I got to 76."

The candidates also stay in touch through telephone and e-mail, contacting tribal and municipal officials in communities they might not be able to visit.

Unlike traditional campaigns, the vote-getting appeals in District C usually are at the retail, rather than wholesale level.

"In order to be heard in some of the communities, I have to do a (paid) radio spot here in Fairbanks," Lincoln said. She faults the urban media for scant coverage of rural election campaigns.

But with the lack of a central media market, advertising dollars are widely dispersed.

"I'm a statewide candidate, so I have to advertise just about everywhere," Carter said.

Lincoln decided against commissioning a $7,500 opinion poll and instead directed the money toward written materials and postage.

Lawn signs don't play the normal role, either. Lincoln often has to tell supporters that the signs should be on the lawns, not inside their homes.

When voters finally get to meet the candidates, they do hear differences.

Lincoln, still striking and colorful at age 59, is one of the most prominent Native voices in the state. She is one of the few lawmakers who have backed the Gwich'in Indians of Arctic Village in their opposition to oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

And she is an ardent supporter of constitutional protection for subsistence hunting and fishing in rural areas, an issue at the center of the urban-rural divide. The federal government now manages subsistence on federal lands and navigable waters -- about two-thirds of Alaska -- because of the Legislature's refusal to put a constitutional amendment for a rural priority on the election ballot.

Carter started off his campaign opposed to the constitutional amendment but now says he's willing to have the public vote.

Carter, 52, owns a gardening business and does weather observations for the FAA. He echoes the pro-development themes of Republican gubernatorial candidate Frank Murkowski, a U.S. senator.

Carter favors opening Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). And he agrees with Murkowski that the existing tax regime is adequate to close the state's fiscal gap, estimated at $1 billion when reserves run out in two or three years. The size of the fiscal gap is based largely on the price of oil, which accounts for about 80 percent of state general-purpose spending.

"The U.S. is gearing up for war with Iraq," Carter says. "I guarantee you if it does, the price of oil will jump to $40 a barrel." The historical average of the price of Alaska's North Slope oil is less than half of that. Recently, prices have been just under $30.

Alaska is the only state without either a statewide sales tax or an income tax. Lincoln, a member of the Democratic minority caucus in the Senate, has been among a bipartisan group of legislators pushing for new sources of revenue.

Whatever happens in the District C race, Republicans are expected to maintain control of the Legislature. And the urban-rural divide, including alleged disparities in the education aid formula and school construction and maintenance schedule, is likely to continue.

Whether District C itself continues indefinitely might be another matter.

The exodus from rural areas hasn't abated, and ultimately that could result in the nation's largest legislative district growing even larger. One political science professor has speculated that after the next Census in 2010 the U.S. Justice Department will step in and require Alaska to increase the size of the Legislature.