- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Leaders of the Alaska Federation of Natives said Friday that while they don’t typically endorse candidates, their support this year for Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich reflects his work on Native issues and his influential positions on the Senate Appropriations and Indian Affairs committees.

The largest statewide organization of Alaska Natives, known as AFN, held a news conference to explain the recent endorsement of Begich, independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker and Walker’s Democratic running mate, Byron Mallott.

Begich, Walker and Mallott attended, and Mallott said being endorsed as a statewide candidate by his own people was among the proudest moments of his life.

AFN President Julie Kitka said the group has made endorsements only three times before - twice for Democrat Tony Knowles in gubernatorial races and for Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010.

April Ferguson, an AFN board member, said the organization did not take the endorsement process lightly. In the case of Begich, she said the endorsement reflected his record, support for Native subsistence rights, his knowledge of fisheries issues and his position on committees. She called it a pragmatic decision.

Alaska is one of the few states with both its senators on Appropriations. Begich, in touting his clout, has said two senators of the same party from the same state have never served on that committee together. Alaska’s senior senator, Murkowski, is also a member.

Kitka said support for the endorsement was taken on a voice vote. AFN co-chair Ana Hoffman said the endorsements of both tickets came with strong majorities.

Hoffman said Mallott, a former AFN president, is well-known for his commitment to Alaska Natives and that Walker has shown a commitment to Alaska’s economic and energy needs. Walker and Mallott, who won his party’s nomination for governor, joined forces after the primary, creating a “unity ticket” seen as providing a stronger challenger to Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.

While Parnell has reached out to the Native community, Kitka the state has a record of fighting at the congressional level several initiatives supported by tribes.

In the lead-up to last week’s AFN convention, Begich racked up a number of endorsements from Native groups. His Republican challenger, Dan Sullivan, was supported by leaders of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and Tara Sweeney, who had served as an AFN co-chair.

At the news conference, AFN also called for additional steps to help protect Alaska Native voting rights.

Among other things, AFN is urging creation of a bipartisan state commission to look at modernizing the election process and supporting, on the federal level, allowing for federally recognized tribes to be able to designate their own voting sites.

This year, nearly 130 new early voting sites were approved in Alaska, many in rural areas, in conjunction with groups like AFN and the state. There also has been a push within the Native community to urge people to vote.

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