By PAULETTE SCHURECH
In 2010, when Sen. Lisa Murkowski needed help for her write-in campaign, I thought enough of her to run that effort in rural Alaska. If her re-election campaign reached out to me for help today, however, I wouldn’t answer the call.
This time around, I’m supporting Kelly Tshibaka, Murkowski’s opponent. This is why.
In 2014, an Alaskan public official made some harsh and hurtful comments about suicide at a high school, saying that suicide happens because of a lack of support from parents and friends. These comments came shortly after one of the students had taken his own life. Senator Murkowski defended the official’s remarks in the next news cycle, suggesting suicide is the fault of entire communities. Like many Alaskans, I shook my head in disbelief, disgusted.
The following day, many of us Alaska Natives were outside the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) annual conference waving signs for Bill Walker when Murkowski was dropped off so she could share her remarks with the delegates. She and I made eye contact–we have had a close relationship going back to that write-in campaign. When our eyes met, my first expression was disgust and disappointment, and I shook my head at her. I have lost so many loved ones to suicide; her press statement had hurt my heart.
But the pain of her public comments paled compared to how her speech would pierce my soul. When she addressed the delegates, Senator Murkowski said, “Don’t you give me the stink eye and shake your heads at me. I see you,” and she pointed her finger condescendingly at all of us sitting around the room!
Who gives anyone the right to do that? I see you, too, Senator. This is when you lost my vote!
Rural Alaska has some of the highest rates of suicide in the nation, and we are losing generations of our people! Recently, our family lost another loved one to suicide. It’s still devastatingly painful. You reflect on all the stuff they did since they were little, you laugh, you cry, and a lot of the time, you ask, “Why?”
Senator Murkowski, I see you. We need compassion, understanding, and someone who will respect us. We don’t need you to throw a piece of fish at us when it’s an election year; we need someone who will honor their commitment to the people of Alaska and our state every year they are in office.
We need labels removed from us – the expectation that we will support certain candidates simply because of our race. These assumptions only divide us as Alaskans.
AFN doesn’t represent me, and the tiny group of Alaska Native women who issued statements of support for Murkowski doesn’t represent me, either. It is offensive to assume that because a small group of Alaska Natives supports one politician, it means that we all do.
That is why I came out of retirement to join Kelly Tshibaka’s team: To mobilize rural Alaska and as many Alaskans as possible to come out and vote for her. I’m not a Republican; in fact, I co-led campaigns for Tony Knowles and Bill Walker. But Tshibaka has shown that she genuinely cares about rural Alaska, our living conditions, our families, jobs, housing, and suicide rates. She’s visited many of our rural communities, where some residents have asked her, “Why did you come here? Politicians never come here.” Tshibaka has slept on floors, been weathered in with us, and most importantly, listened to us.
It’s time for a change. And I’m going to do everything in my power to make that change happen.
Paulette Schuerch is an Alaska Native leader who has been involved in politics for decades, helping to lead multiple successful campaigns and serving in Gov. Bill Walker’s administration. She resides in Kotzebue and is an undeclared voter.