Three U.S. House Candidates Address Roe v. Wade, to Salmon, Local and National Security at Bethel Forum

Three Alaska Native candidates running in the special primary election for Alaska’s U.S. seat traveled to Bethel for a candidates’ forum on May 6. Voters participating in the forum raised three main issues important to them: access to abortion, salmon conservation and public safety.

Four of the 48 candidates in the race were due to attend: Emil Notti, Mary Peltola, Tara Sweeney and Sarah Palin.

Peltola, a Democrat, is Yup’ik and served as a Bethel-area legislator for a decade. Most recently, she served as Executive Director of the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Notti, a Democrat, is Athabascan from Koyukuk. At 89, he is the oldest candidate in the race. Notti is best known for serving as the first president of the AFN and helping to draft the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Sweeney, a Republican, is Iñupiat of Utqiagvik. She served as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs during the Trump administration.

But Bethel resident Trim Nick did not attend the forum to see these three candidates.

“I came to see Sarah [Palin]“, said Nick.

But Palin didn’t show up. Dense fog delayed the candidates’ flight for several hours. In the meantime, Palin canceled her ticket and couldn’t get a new one. That’s according to event organizer and moderator Ana Hoffman, president and CEO of Bethel Native Corporation.

Hoffman asked the contestants six questions about rural Alaskan issues. In one of the final questions, she asked the candidates if they supported overturning Roe v. Wade and the possibility for States to legislate on access to abortion. Alaska’s constitution protects the freedom to choose abortion, but that could change next year if a constitutional convention is held and the state constitution is amended.

Both Peltola and Sweeney have said they are pro-abortion rights. Peltola said she would work to defend Roe against Wade. Sweeney added that she does not support government funding of abortion. Emil Notti said he believed in state rights, which would mean overturning Roe v. Wade, but he said the pick should remain legal at the state level.

“As far as abortion is concerned, I think it’s a three-way decision. It’s between a woman and her doctor, and the woman and the god,” Notti said.

Several people who attended the forum said abortion was their most important issue this election cycle.

“I wanted to ask what they are going to do about this Roe v. Wade because it’s really scary. It’s really alarming. And that definitely puts the safety of Indigenous women at stake,” said Bethel resident Victoria Sosa.

Other participants said that salmon conservation was their main issue. All three candidates spoke about the importance of protecting salmon at the forum. In a follow-up interview with KYUK, each candidate said they would work to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The act was originally drafted by the late Congressman Don Young, whose candidates are vying for the seat. Its objective is to protect threatened or overexploited stocks.

Jayvin Williams was helping out at the event. His job was to pick up contestants from the airport and play the traditional drum during the forum when the contestants’ time to answer questions was over. Williams said there was one issue that was most important to him.

“I really think public safety is the main issue,” Williams said.

Only one candidate, Peltola, offered solutions for local public safety at the forum. She answered a question from Hoffman about how the candidates would propose to improve access to health care, public safety and education.

“Public safety is intertwined with so many other issues. Many people remain in unsafe households due to chronic housing shortages in Alaska. So, among other things, I will look for opportunities to increase our housing supply and make housing truly accessible,” Peltola said.

Later, in response to a question about rural Alaska’s role in national security, Peltola said she supported an increased presence of military personnel in rural Alaska. She said it could also contribute to local public safety with military officers acting as first responders in emergencies like floods or fires. Sweeney also touched on national security.

“It’s about securing our borders and ensuring that we continue to provide needed services to the rest of the country through our natural resource development. Whether it’s oil and gas on the North Slope or critical minerals that this country so badly needs to wean itself off the dependence we have on China,” Sweeney said.

At the end of the event, Sweeney’s campaign handed out bags of Utqiagvik muktuk. But Peltola, the local candidate, seemed to have the hometown advantage. Many voters said they were voting for her, including Bethel voter Madison Glore. She has just turned 18 and is voting for the first time in this special primary.

“I knew her [Peltola] personally. And I know her goals as a candidate. And I’m just excited to see where she takes it. I know her a little and I know what she wants. She’s also from Alaska, so it’s pretty exciting to see one up there,” Glore said.

If one of the four Alaska Native candidates running for this special election wins, they will be the first Alaska Native elected to the United States Congress.

The deadline to register to vote in the special primary election for the U.S. House seat in Alaska is May 12. Ballots must be postmarked by June 11.