By RHONDA MCBRIDE
First of all, Suzanne, thanks for covering the governor’s Naknek debate in your blog. Overall you did a good job of pointing out some of the highlights. And although I don’t always agree with you, I’m always amazed at how much political ground you cover.
You’re at you’re best when you turn up those little gems – like the piece you did about Mike Hawker’s post-legislative life, serving the Catholic Church. I learn a lot from your blog.
But what I learned about your coverage of the Naknek debate surprised me – that you did not see the significance of my question about whether the candidates had ever used a honey bucket. I believe you called it a “new low” in debates.
One of the reasons this debate was organized was to bring attention to issues important to Rural Alaskans. Over the years, I’ve moderated a lot of debates and forums, and typically there may be only one or two questions of interest to Rural Alaskans.
This forum was fascinating, because candidates typically have their talking points mapped on the major issues and are not asked the kind of questions we heard raised in this debate, so the candidates responses were less scripted and more thoughtful.
The honey bucket question was one of several asked to establish the candidates’ rural “cred.” Had they traveled enough to know the kinds of daily challenges Rural Alaskans face? What was the last rural community they had visited? Did they know any words in an Alaska Native language?
For a rural audience, the “honey bucket” question is sort of like the tip of a political iceberg. Some candidates will never visit a community without modern bathroom amenities – so they have no idea about the challenges people face on a daily basis.
Communities without indoor plumbing and adequate sanitation often have higher rates of disease and less opportunity for economic development – because so much time and labor is expended hauling river water, chopping ice and dumping buckets. Also, communities without sanitation will never be able to develop tourism.
Years ago when I was in Chevak, I had a chance to visit with a well-known mask carver named Earl Atchak. The washing machine was in the living room and was his family’s prized possession. He pulled out a shirt, that would soon be hung outside to dry, and said, “Look. Clean clothes. Wow. Man. Everyone feels better when it’s easy to be clean.”
He says the advent of indoor plumbing in Chevak has given everyone more time to be productive. And for him more masks and dolls mean more money to support his family. And Earl has been known to get thousands of dollars for some of his pieces.
There’s another reason to bring up honey buckets.
In the 1994 governor’s race, Tony Knowles pledged to put the honey bucket in a museum. That failed promise haunted him right through his run for the U.S. Senate, not that he didn’t try.
And today, about three-dozen Rural Alaskan communities are still waiting.
Maybe I could have framed my question better, something like “Will you put the honey bucket in a museum?” That would have been a good one too.
This debate, overall, was a refreshing change. I did not craft many of the questions. Most of them came from Rural Alaskans and many of them emphasized the importance of fisheries and their impact on just about every Alaskan coastal community.
As the organizers of the debate put it: this is one of Alaska’s permanent funds that doesn’t get its due.
The debate organizers, by the way, were two Naknek moms, Katie Copps Wilson and Sharon Thompson, who worked hard to attract the five main candidates in the governor’s race. They were excited when Mark Begich and Mead Treadwell, who filed on deadline day for the race, quickly adjusted their schedules to come. But as the date for the debate approached, they were very nervous. They’d never done anything like this before and didn’t want to embarrass their community.
They wisely enlisted the help of Laine Welch, producer of Alaska Fish Radio, who has many years of experience moderating statewide debates on fisheries. Longtime fisheries reporter Margaret Bauman was also tapped. It was one of the better forums I’ve been asked to moderate.
The debate was part of the Bristol Bay Fish Expo, a fundraiser for “The Little Angels Academy,” which strives to be more than a daycare, but also an early child development program.
It’s based at the Naknek school, which is an older building, but nicely cared for. The auditorium is still lovely, and speaks to a time when fishing brought a lot more money to the community. It’s a reminder that people here invested in education and had big dreams for their children.
The fact that the five main candidates would come to this debate is refreshing. As more voters are concentrated in the Railbelt, candidates have less incentive to travel far afield.
Of course, voters want to hear the candidates to shop and compare. And rural voters rarely get to have all the candidates in front of them at one time.
Carvel Zimin, who is president of the Bristol Bay Borough, said he appreciated the good discussion and said every candidate brought something to the table, even Scott Hawkins, who admittedly had less experience in Rural Alaska. He didn’t know any words in an Alaska Native language and had never used a honey bucket. But Zimin said he appreciated Hawkins’ candor and thought he had a lot of good ideas.
Rural voters also want a two-way street. They want the candidates to learn from them as well. And I think the candidates learned an important lesson in Naknek.
It was a beautiful June night, but the forum went on for almost three hours. The auditorium was getting hot towards the end — yet the crowd, for the most part, stuck around through the whole thing. A lot of people listened intently on the radio, which was broadcast by KDLG and KAKN. The debate was the talk of the town the next day.
The theme of the debate was rural sustainability — how to help rural communities not just survive but thrive.
I hope the takeaway for the candidates is that people care deeply about fisheries, habitat and wildlife protection, education and economic development.
This will be an interesting race to follow, because it could be very close – and historically, that’s when the rural vote can swing a race.
But we now have two candidates who potentially will draw heavily from the pool of rural voters – Gov. Bill Walker and Democrat Mark Begich. If they split that vote, will it make it easier for a Republican to win? Does Mike Dunleavy’s position of the Permanent Fund help him win some rural votes? How will Mead Treadwell’s work on climate change hurt or help him in this race? Some of the many questions that makes the Naknek forum so fascinating.
Here’s a link to the debate in its entirety, along with questions from the audience.
Rhonda McBride is the host of KTVA’s Frontiers program, which airs on Sundays. She worked at KYUK in Bethel, Alaska Public Radio Network, KAKM, and KTUU, as well as serving for a year in the administration of Gov. Sarah Palin as rural advisor.