Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka on whirlwind tour through Nome
By Diana Haecker
Alaska Senatorial candidate Kelly Tshibaka (R) visited Nome on Monday and Tuesday on her first campaign trip to the region. After a visit to Koyuk and Shaktoolik, Tshibaka traveled to Nome and was hosted at the VFW on Monday evening, started out Tuesday morning talking to a high school class at Nome-Beltz and then went on to lunch, a tour of a mining operation and visit with Kawerak leadership, her scheduler said.
During her visit to Nome-Beltz, she talked to students about how to run for office, took questions on topics of oil, gas, campaign funding and shared her beliefs on the meaning of leadership. Tshibaka, a conservative Republican, in March resigned from her job as Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration to run for Senate in next year’s elections. Prior to the commissioner’s job in Juneau, she worked for 16 years in high level government jobs in Washington DC, including chief data officer and assistant inspector general of the US Postal Service, at the Federal Trade Commission’s Inspector General office; as a special advisor at the civil liberties and privacy office for the director of National Intelligence and the Dept. of Justice. She graduated from Harvard Law School.
Tshibaka is one of nine candidates challenging incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski for the Senate seat in the 2022 election.
Starting out, she was asked about the process of running for office. She said she hasn’t run for office prior to this bid for the Senate seat and said that her background is in holding government insiders accountable, shrinking government and cutting down waste. She said, “there are lot of people in government right now who are hurting Alaska and I don’t like it. I decided to stand up and do something about it.” Running for office, she said, one has to examine one’s motivation and it shouldn’t be for reasons to gain power.
Tshibaka has been endorsed by former president Donald Trump. At the school, she said “Trump’s policies were super great for our state,” and that she did not want to be endorsed by President Joe Biden. “He’s killing our state. He campaigned on anti-Alaska, anti-energy policies,” she said. In a discourse on leadership, she said her raison d’être is to champion other people. “When I was younger, I got bullied a lot. Not just by peers but also by authority figures and the reason was, we were really poor and my parents worked their way out. Another reason is that I was Christian. I decided whenever I get any kind of popularity or power — that took a long time — I want to champion the people who aren’t being championed.”
“When we elect a leader, they’re supposed to represent us, re-present us, right? We’re supposed to be a people that have a government, not a government that has a people. But a lot of times, when you look at the people who take leadership positions, they kind of stumble all over the people and they don’t really represent us and they don’t serve us.”
Asked what she learned in traveling throughout Alaska, she said the issues are different from one region to the other, but the same themes pop up everywhere: People feel forgotten, they don’t feel heard and they don’t feel valued.
When asked specifically on Alaska Native land claims and protecting ANCSA rights, she answered that she would be working to “increase profitability of the corporations.”
Students asked about her stance on oil and gas development in Alaska and also renewable energy options. Tshibaka answered that in her travels she has learned that those living near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Utqiagvik were upset “that Biden shut ANWR down.” She argued that by stopping responsible oil and gas development in Alaska plays into the hands of fossil fuel development in Russia, China, Iran and Iraq. “They have huge environmental waste products and that is directly affecting people here, especially the west coast of Alaska,” she said. “We have to deal with environmental pollution of other countries that have far worse carbon output than we do.” A student asked why not focus energy on development of renewables? While she was for renewable energy sources, she said at this point, it is not enough and that fossil fuels are still needed. “Developing oil here -cleaner and greener- is hurting our environment less than having other countries produce it,” she said.
In terms of education, she proposed a “job pipeline” and put Alaskan kids into “functional post-high school programs that end up with a real job in Alaska.” As a mother of five, she said, she is sad to see her oldest kids having to go outside of Alaska for college. She said that Alaska needs to offer more trade or tech education. Companies can’t find tech graduates in Alaska, she said. “There is not a lot of philosophy [graduates] hiring going on in Alaska,” she said.
How to address homelessness?
“It’s a local challenge really, but close to my heart given what my family has gone through,” she said. She said as a congressional delegate she would regularly call in to state or municipal leaders and find ways to route money directly to programs. Then she aired conservative grievances of government wasting money on bureaucracy and what she heard from talking to homeless shelters in Alaska. “That money that was meant for homeless shelters gets routed to the state,” she said. “And then it sort of disappears into the abyss of government. When government grows, freedom shrinks. Government shrinks, freedom grows. Simple principal.” Her background, she said, is in auditing and investigating government. She made the case that she knows how to follow the money to the penny and that she would make sure funds would go directly to the program on the ground.
A student asked her about how she funds her campaign, and how she justifies holding campaign fundraisers in Florida while criticizing Murkowski’s “outside” campaign donors. “Almost all my campaign funding right now comes from grass roots people, individuals who are just contributing to the campaign,” Tshibaka said. “We don’t yet have groups, PACs etc. we’re just grass roots funded and half the money, or more, is coming from Alaskans. The money that we spent has been prioritized on traveling out to rural communities, that is so important. Like I said before, if you don’t understand Alaska, how can you represent Alaska?”
In a swipe aimed at Congressman Don Young, she said, she heard from people that he hasn’t been here in a decade or so. Something she would not do. “We’re using the money to go to Alaskans, not fancy parties with fancy people. It’s the ExtraTuff boots who will be deciding who our leaders are.”
She went on to say that “there is a reason why we don’t have really big money yet coming in from outside. You have to do that later. This election costs about $20 million, that’s how much a Senate race costs, we don’t have $20 million in Alaska. But right now, we are focusing on Alaskan and with Alaskans. We are prioritizing spending time with Alaskans.”
She spoke of her background and how she ended up living and working in Washington DC after law school. She said her husband landed a job at a DC law firm. “By the grace of God, I got a job at the Department of Justice, with the Alaskan value of making government work for the people.” She would spend 16 years in federal oversight role in various agencies and departments. “My DC experience has been in challenging government insiders,” she said. “I was not very popular there, that was never the goal. The goal was always to protect Americans and that’s the goal now, to get back to do what I can to protect us, because right now they’re not working for us, they’re working against us,” she told the class.
As for land issues, she said that Trump wanted to return federal lands to Alaska but that the “Biden administration just decided to take 60 million acres from us here in the Northwest and you can’t even subsistence hunt on it anymore.” That is incorrect. The federal subsistence management program mulls a Temporary Wildlife Special Action Request from the Northwest Arctic Subsistence Regional Advisory Council that would close all federal lands within Game Units 23 and 26a to moose and caribou hunters who aren’t “federally qualified subsistence users.” This would affect the non-resident hunting season for caribou in Unit 23, and most of it in Unit 26A. The decision was deferred until 2022 with a second hearing to be held on Dec. 2.
In context of how long she plans to be in office, if voted to the seat, she said she’s like to pass the baton when she’s “just in place” and that she wants to mentor a successor. As Senator Murkowski and her are trading jabs on who’s an DC “insider” and thereby not a “real” Alaskan, she turned the argument on its head in that context. “Lisa Murkowski said before of other candidates that they are not really qualified for office because they’ve only been in Alaska, they don’t know how the system works in DC, ‘We can’t just have someone show up in DC, they’ll be eaten alive.’ There is some truth to that. DC is this whole other world. And so in the same way, if we have people come through and we’re raising them to understand the system, the process, the structures, the people, we hit the ground running and maximize our value. We have three votes there, we need to maximize it. That’s what I’d like to do, have someone who can actually just step right in.”
Blue campaign bags emblazoned with “Kelly for Alaska” contained campaign pamphlets and just as the school bell rang and class was over, the principal asked the bags to be removed, saying that political campaign literature was not allowed on school premises. “Can we keep the apple?” asked one student, and yes, he could.