“What you have to say about the future of Alaska really does matter and I will take your input seriously,” said Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy moments into his speech in front of the Alaska Federation of Natives’ annual convention in Fairbanks this morning.
His line was met with a rumbling of dissent from the audience, the largest annual gathering of Alaska Natives, tribes and groups from throughout the state. In the crowd, multiple people had turned stood and turned their back to the governor, their fists raised signs of protest. Another group unfurled a banner, declaring that “RECALL is #GoodGovernment” in a nod to both the effort to remove Dunleavy from office and the convention’s theme that’s seen as a rebuttal to the governor’s first year in office.
When chanting and drums broke out midway through the embattled governor’s address, AFN co-chair Will Mayo interrupted and took the stage to tell the protestors to respect their guest.
“I’m sorry, I can’t agree with this. … When we gather together and invite somebody into our house, we do it out of respect and we do it with kindness in the Native way,” he said to wide applause. “I’m going to ask I respect your right to protest in this way, but I want to ask you with respect to please express your views at the voting booth, express your beliefs in a constructive way and don’t come into our house and disrespect our guest.”
Dunleavy resumed the speech, reading off his notes and making no acknowledgement to the protestors or to Mayo’s words.
Still, the speech contained the closest the governor has come to publicly apologizing for the incredibly divisive budget process and subsequent vetoes that rocked much of Alaska throughout this summer and helped fuel the recall.
“I will be first to say as governor that I must take responsibility for my part in this process and I will work hard to ensure the budget process goes much more smoothly this year,” he said. “I will make every effort to incorporate the perspective of all Alaskans.”
In his speech, he said he would be focusing further investments in public safety, announced plans to work with tribes for better control over local education decisions, pledged to “settle the debate on the PFD” and said he’d work with rural legislators on preserving the power cost equalization program. The governor is currently in the process of formulating his budget, due out in December.
All of it would be good news if not for the fact that many of the problems Dunleavy said he’d work were either created or made worse by his actions on the budget this year.
The power cost equalization program that he’s pledging to work to save was really only put into danger this year because he decided to include the program’s fund source in an expanded sweep that was part of his battle with the Legislature over the permanent fund dividend.
The Dunleavy administration’s record on rural public safety can be charitably described as “tumultuous.” His administration vetoed funds for Village Public Safety Officers and tribal groups have complained that the administration has rejected requests to help recruit new officers, but on stage he promised that the state would fund any VPSO recruits.
When asked about his statement against the backdrop of the current complaints about the administration’s seeming disinterest in rural public safety, Dunleavy said he’s only looking forward.
“All I can answer is what we’re going to be doing forward,” he said. “That’s going to make sure we’re funding all the hires and all the recruits that the non-profits are able to find.”
And in the larger context, the seemingly conciliatory address comes at a time when the governor is making the rounds with national right-wing media in hopes of stirring up national support against his recall effort. There, he’s compared himself to President Trump in trying to deliver conservative victories on things like anti-union policies.
Why it matters
Alaska Native corporations, tribes and non-profits represent a powerful political wing in Alaska politics. They’re certainly not entirely united on many issues, but have already found themselves coming together to voice concerns about the Dunleavy administration.
The state’s 12 regional corporations came together in a rare letter to the Legislature earlier this year, pleading with the body to override the governor’s vetoes out of concern about “the potential harm the proposed cuts will cause to the state’s economy.”
Most of the regional corporations have stayed out of the recall effort, but Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI) has already come out as a backer of the recall and is currently loaning some of its space to the Recall Dunleavy group at the AFN convention.
Dunleavy’s appearance at AFN will likely not do much to sway anyone. It’s ultimately his budget due out in December that will either prove that he’s truly listening to Alaska Natives and other Alaskans or if he’s continuing on the far-right path that’s defined his administration so far.