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Kookesh: Criticism from Miller spurred cancellation of AFN Senate debate

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Posted: Friday, October 22, 2010 11:35 pm | Updated: 1:10 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - Alaska Federation of Natives officials decided to cancel a U.S. Senate forum scheduled for Friday at least partly in retaliation to criticism from Republican nominee Joe Miller, according to AFN co-chairman Albert Kookesh.

AFN abruptly announced on Wednesday that it was canceling a planned forum at its annual convention at the Carlson Center featuring Miller, Democrat Scott McAdams, Republican write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski and Libertarian David Haase. The reason given at the time was that organizers wanted to devote more time to a discussion about subsistence.

But Kookesh said there were also political considerations at work. Miller has been a vocal critic of Alaskans Standing Together, a political action committee funded mostly by Alaska Native corporations. Miller filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against the PAC on Wednesday, accusing it of improperly using corporate funds to boost Murkowski’s campaign.

Miller has also attacked the preferential role that Native corporations get when competing for federal contracts, saying that the process lacks transparency and doesn’t deliver enough benefits to shareholders.

Kookesh said Miller’s criticism left the AFN board reluctant to give him a platform at its convention, which attracts thousands of delegates.

“We just didn’t feel he deserved that kind of air time,” said Kookesh, who is also a Democratic state senator from Angoon whose district includes Interior Alaska.

Kookesh said it was “unfortunate” that McAdams’ chance to speak was lost but that it didn’t make sense to hold a forum without Miller.

Kookesh also said the forum didn’t appear to be aligned with the goal of supporting Murkowski. The AFN board voted last month to endorse the incumbent senator, and he said giving more exposure to Miller and McAdams felt like it was at odds with that move. AFN delegates affirmed the Murkowski endorsement following her floor speech at the convention on Thursday.

“It’s politics,” Kookesh said. “We wanted her to have a stage, and there’s no reason to give air time to her opponents.”

Miller and McAdams both held off-site events on Friday that catered to the AFN delegates. Miller talked to a group of about 40 people at the nearby Curling Club, while McAdams held a lunchtime talk at the IBEW union hall about four blocks away.

Miller said he was disappointed that he wasn’t allowed to speak to AFN delegates on the main stage. He said there’s a media-fueled misconception that his positions are hostile to rural Alaska and that people have been surprised during one-on-one conversations at the convention.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “I think it was an opportunity for voters to hear what we had to say.”

McAdams declined to comment on the canceled forum, saying he would leave it up to others to analyze the situation.

The decision to cancel the forum frustrated some AFN delegates, particularly those who supported a candidate other than Murkowski.

“We should have an opportunity for candidates to get up there and let us hear what they have to say,” said Phil Kugzruk, a Miller supporter from Teller. He said the decision was essentially a move to limit free speech at the convention.

Aniak tribal leader Mike Williams, who supports McAdams, said he’s “angry and disappointed” that the forum was canceled.

“I’m sorry that this happened,” Williams said. “This is where the Native people could have had an opportunity to feel out all the issues.”

Kookesh said he doesn’t think AFN’s relationship with Miller is permanently damaged. If he ultimately wins the race, he said AFN could even provide the type of support they offered to Murkowski this year if he proves to be an ally to Alaska Natives.

“We already had a discussion,” Kookesh said. “If you treat us good, we could be doing this for you in (six) years.”

Miller confirmed that he spoke with AFN leaders following the decision to cancel the forum but said he wouldn’t reveal details from a private conversation.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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