The passing of Congressman Don Young left a vacant Alaska at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Forty-seven candidates – four are Alaska Native – run in a special election to fill the pick-one primary for the interim seat. The top four candidates will then run-off in ranked-choice voting that will determine the winning candidate.
Native News Online and KNBA, a Native–owned and operated public radio station in Anchorage, Alaska, collaborated to reach out to all four Native candidates running in the special election. Of the four candidates, one responded to our interview requests: Tara Katuk Sweeney (Republican).
This interview has been edited for clarity.
KNBA/Native News Online: Alaska is a vast state with complex natural resources, environmental conditions and numerous communities. What issues or issues would you prioritize?
Sweeney: My priorities are Alaska's priorities. And as one member of 435 members of Congress, it's important to build the relationships in Congress so that others can help in promoting Alaska's issues. For my campaign, I'm focused on a robust economy, a strong labor force and healthy communities.
Former representative Don Young had a reputation for crossing party lines to advocate and support measures that impacted Alaskans. In what way would you cross the aisle or work on bipartisan or nonpartisan issues?
As we have traveled across Alaska, we've heard from so many individuals who are tired of the divisive nature that we see in politics today. There's a lot of political fatigue out there. And my leadership approach has always been to focus on being collaborative, bringing together individuals so that we can work on areas where we do have commonalities. I would bring that same sort of approach with me to Washington D.C., building relationships and building the networks and Alaska brand ambassadors inside of the U.S. House of Representatives. You need those relationships in order to accomplish the policy initiatives for Alaska.
Congressman Young was excellent at working across the aisle, and building those relationships to support issues that were important to our state.
If there was a bloc of voters that were inclined to vote for a Native candidate, why should they choose you over the other three candidates?
I would say my experience. I am a small business owner, and a former corporate executive within the Alaska Native Corporation community.
I also served as the 13th Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
My professional background sets me apart from all the other candidates within this race–all 47 of them. What I bring is the 20 years of advocacy that I have spent back and forth walking the halls of Congress on issues important to Alaska, advocating for laws, and working with our delegation and other statewide leaders to propose policies to the delegation.
In addition to that advocacy and understanding how legislation is crafted, I also understand from the executive branch side, how to implement those laws that Congress has passed. Those experiences are what set me apart from everyone else.
How can the office benefit rural and urban Alaskans equally and equitably? And how will you balance those competing interests?
This is a very interesting question, and I want to push back on the narrative. Words matter and framing the issues in this fashion, in my opinion, creates unnecessary division.
My campaign is focused on bringing people together and focused on collaboration. It's important to remember that the elected official for Alaska goes to Washington D.C. to represent all of Alaska, not just the individuals that voted for the candidate, and not one specific constituency.
It is about balancing the perspectives that are shared, and the voices that want to be heard. I go back to my leadership style, and that is to bring people in. I want to hear from Alaskans. I want to hear their perspectives on policy issues that impact their lives, and use that information to make an informed decision.
I grew up in rural Alaska. I understand those challenges. And I think that that perspective helps shape the types of decisions that I make and how I make them. But my goal is always to be inclusive.
As the planet warms international communities look toward leaders in the melting Arctic as having a frontline responsibility toward a more sustainable environmental and economic future. How will you obtain the level of resources that our previous House representative did, and redirect them toward a sustainable future for Alaska's Arctic?
Congressman Young was so effective in garnering the necessary resources for our state. I have that Circumpolar Arctic experience. I helped stand up the Arctic Economic Council upon its creation. And so I do have experience working in the Arctic, and with other countries, on responsible and long-term investments in our region. The only constant that we know is change. And as Alaska Natives, the only constant we've ever known in our communities is change. And so I'm ready to help usher in Alaska's Federal Interests into the next phase.
As we are embarking on a new chapter within our Alaskan delegation, I stand before Alaska voters to be judged on my experience, and my commitment to this state. I think that as we look to a more sustainable environmental and economic future, which we need to unleash our energy production, and focus on our energy resources here in Alaska, as it relates to our national security, but we also have to make room for the conversations about the impacts climate is having in our communities.
We see that our hunting, fishing and gathering cycles are starting later or earlier. And the migration routes are impacted because of a changing climate.
We need to have those conversations. As I look to a more sustainable future for Alaska, it's going to take all of us with those perspectives, again, going back to that collaborative approach about bringing people together, having a seat at the table, having the conversation so that Alaskan voices are heard, so that our elected leadership can make informed decisions about the policies that they're faced with deciding upon in Washington D.C.
What would you put on your walls in your office if you were elected?
Congressman Young put every animal that he probably ever shot on his walls. I have some personal prints that I absolutely love. Sonya Kelliher-Combs is one of the artists that comes to mind. It's a beautiful atikluk that she has framed and I certainly want to take that with me. I want to display my family and my heritage on the walls to share the beauty and the diversity of Alaska with everyone who comes through the doors.
Do you have a short statement that best sums up why you are running and what you hope to accomplish with Alaska as the at-large representative?
My focus is on a robust economy. We're a resource rich state. And those resources are everywhere you look at wind, solar, hydro, oil, gas, critical minerals… we have those resources.
I'm also focused on a strong labor force, which is everywhere. We need to come up with the appropriate types of succession planning to train our workforce throughout the state.
The other pillar of my campaign is focused on healthy communities. No one should have to wait days for police to show up. And that's something that I learned when we were traveling across the state, holding listening sessions about Operation Lady Justice, missing and murdered Native Americans.
No one should ever have to hand carry human waste. I had to do that growing up–I certainly understand the value of a honey bucket.
And we shouldn't have four generations or more living under one household, and COVID certainly highlighted the need for additional housing throughout the entire state.
And one thing that I feel very strongly about is that Alaska should not be leading the nation in fentanyl deaths. And we're seeing that across the state.
My campaign is focused on the future, and there's tremendous potential for Alaska, and how we harness that through public policy. Effective leadership matters, and my experiences working to educate members of Congress, while in the private sector and during my tenure as Assistant Secretary, I certainly understand how to craft policy and implement that policy.
I do believe that Alaska needs a leader with a vision to promote development of our natural resources, and to create the space for climate discussions to maximize our strategic location in the interest of national security and advance the infrastructure that is necessary for our most remote communities to have access to improved mental health, education, health and commercial resources and services.
The Alaska special election primary is June 11, and the special election is August 16. Following the special election, there is a general election on November 8. This will be Alaska's first election with ranked choice voting.
Read an article Native News Online published from KYUK about congressional candidate Mary Peltola here.
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