Forty-eight candidates are on the ballot in the special primary election to fill the U.S. House seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Don Young. The election is being conducted by mail, with special return envelopes. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Don Young was Alaska’s sole U.S. House member for 49 years. Now some of the candidates seeking to replace him want to be in the seat for four months.
Of the four dozen people vying to hold Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat, half are seeking merely to fill out the rest of Young’s term, left vacant after the veteran lawmaker died in March.
Among those is one of the most recognizable names in the vast field: Santa Claus, a real person who is in his second term on the city council in North Pole, a community of about 2,250 in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Claus’ original name was Tom O’Connor, but he legally changed it in 2005 at a time when he was working on a national campaign to help vulnerable children. He found that members of Congress were receptive to meetings with someone named Santa Claus.
“It sounds ridiculous. But it’s a very effective tool,” said Claus, a 75-year-old, white-bearded doppelganger of the mythical Christmas icon.
Also prominent are Andrew Halcro, 57, a former state legislator, former Anchorage Chamber of Commerce president and current podcast host and businessman; and Emil Notti, an 89-year-old statesman who played a pivotal role in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, served as the first president of the Alaska Federation of Natives and held cabinet positions in two gubernatorial administrations, in addition to numerous other government and business accomplishments.
No campaigning during four-month term
As for why they are seeking only the temporary position, the three had similar responses: They want to serve Alaska in Congress without the distraction of campaigning. Anyone vying for the full term in this highly unusual and highly competitive election, the first under Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system and the first in five decades without Young’s name on the ballot, will have to focus fully on campaigning, they argue.
“Alaska will essentially be without representation for that period of time,” Notti said.
For Notti, an Athabaskan born in the village of Koyukuk, the special election is an epilogue to his personal history. In 1973, he ran in a different special U.S. House election – against Don Young. Notti lost by a mere 1,921 votes.
Not much money
None of the three is raising or spending much money. The campaigning they are doing is ultra-low budget, with online ads and personal contacts.
Halco, who describes it as a “longshot,” said he has raised and spent $4,200. Notti put his limit at about $4,000. Claus is spending the least, only $249 as of early June, and is neither soliciting nor accepting donations.
Each has specific – though limited – plans for action in Congress if elected to the temporary position.
Halcro said it is vital that Alaska be represented in Congress right away because tumultuous world events are affecting the state. For example, Russia’s now-pariah status – and responses like the ban on Russian seafood imports – mean some opportunity for Alaska’s fishing industry, he said. Likewise, the new militarization of the Arctic means “Alaska’s military bases have clearly come into the forefront,” he said.
“I view the next three to four months as critical because the whole world is changing. It’s changing beneath our feet,” he said.
Claus, who describes himself as an “independent, progressive, democratic socialist, with an affinity for Bernie Sanders,” said he will try for some “incremental” progressive accomplishments if he is in office briefly. Those include protections of abortion rights and union-organizing rights, he said. “What I’m trying to do is stuff that’s reasonable that actually could be done,” he said.
But he also plans to help Alaska’s U.S. senators, both Republicans, with their ongoing work. For example, he – like Halcro – is intent on securing more support for Alaska-based military personnel, so wants to help Sen. Dan Sullivan with military housing and suicide prevention initiatives, he said. And he wants to help Sen. Lisa Murkowski with infrastructure.
Notti said he hopes to use the brief period to bring attention to two critical issues: climate change and “dark money.”
On climate change, “What I want to do is raise the issue and try to make it an issue that’s talked about more with some urgency,” he said. Alaska villages need to be relocated, salmon runs are faltering, the state faces costlier maintenance for roads and other infrastructure, and it is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately, “not 20 years from now, not 10 years from now,” he said
He also wants to combat the power of political action committees. “The special interests and the PACs are eating the country,” he said. With nearly free rein granted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, he said, such groups overpower even political parties. “They don’t have to answer to anyone,” he said.
All three candidates decried what they characterize as over-the-top partisanship and hostility within politics.
“Today, there’s very little give and take,” said Notti, a Democrat. “We’re not enemies. We have a different point of view.”
Claus, though a proud progressive, touted his ability to work with conservatives. Being elected twice in one of the state’s most conservative communities, where he serves as mayor pro tem and served in the past as president of the chamber of commerce, is evidence of such cooperation, he said. “I’m all about finding common ground,” he said.
Among his consensus-building efforts, he said, was his work helping Young – a founding member of Congress’ Cannabis Caucus — to ensure that the now-legal cannabis industry can function.
Halcro, whose campaign website describes him as “a moderate in this time of political extremism,” said he remains a registered Republican, the party affiliation he’s held through his adult life. He noted that 30 years ago, his father received the Alaska Republican Man of the Year award from none other than Don Young.
But in this election, he is running as an unaffiliated candidate.
“Today, I simply don’t recognize the party,” he said. “It isn’t about being conservative. It’s about scorched earth. Today, candidates are bomb-throwers. They just want to break things.”
Claus got a taste of harsh campaigning when Republican candidate Josh Revak, running in both the special and regular elections, took to social media with a semi-satirical video attacking him as a “communist imposter” with “North Pole Marxist fantasies.”
The Santa phenomenon is undoubtedly affecting the race, said pollster and analyst Ivan Moore.
Early polling suggests that of all the candidates running just to fill out the rest of Young’s term, Claus has the best chance to make it to the final four, from which a winner will be chosen in the Aug. 16 election, Moore said.
There are caveats. “It is impossible to tell whether there’s any difference between someone’s likelihood to vote for Santa in a poll and someone who is likely to vote for Santa for reals,” Moore said. Still, there is some appeal beyond name recognition, he said.“He’s certainly more credible than just a novelty candidate,” he said.
As for the candidates’ pitch about the benefits of a transition House member, Moore believes few voters will respond.
“I think it’s a sensible argument. I don’t think it’s an argument that’ll work, just because it’s kind of inside baseball that only candidates think about,” he said.
But for the Santa Claus campaign, Moore said, the temporary-only idea might help because it gives people the chance to vote for that very famous name with the reassurance that the term is transitory. “Even Don Young would get a chuckle out of it,” he said.
The famous name has its drawbacks.
Claus has been frustrated at the refusal by Twitter to grant him a “blue check,” a symbol the social media platform uses to denote credibility.
“They don’t want to confirm that I’m verified as Santa Claus,” he said. “Pretty much everybody I’m running against has a verified checkmark.”
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