Alaska's Lesson for the Left
People say powerful corporations are the problem.
People say money in politics is the problem.
People say the corrupt two-party system is the problem.
People say Beltway lobbyists are the problem.
Yeah? So what? What are you going to do about it?
Write about it on your blog?
Sign an online petition?
Call your member of Congress?
Write a letter to the editor?
Read The Nation magazine?
Watch C-Span? (Sam Smith, in his classic book Why Bother?, wrote that “we view C-Span to remember what democracy was about.”)
Name your representatives in your state’s legislature—House and Senate. Don’t know their names? Join the club. In my snap survey of friends, relatives and even political junkies, more than 70 percent couldn’t name both. I’m sure that holds true for Michigan, the United Auto Workers state that last year passed a so-called “right to work” unionbusting law. Watch out for similar legislation coming to a state near you.
According to Richard Winger of Ballot Access News, about 33 percent of all state legislative-district elections in 2012 had only one candidate per seat in the race—and Winger says it’s likely that the vast majority of those candidates were incumbents running unopposed. Many of those races can be won with a mere 3,000 to 5,000 votes or so, depending on the year. And yet we sit back, read The Nation, write letters to the editor, sign online petitions and watch C-Span. There is another way.
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Gershon Cohen is a debate coach at Haines High School in Haines, Alaska. Cohen is also an activist. In 2006, he led a successful campaign to pass a ballot initiative that regulates and taxes the cruise line industry. He’s now encouraging his fellow Alaskan citizens to run for office to defend the Alaska Constitution—which he says was drafted to acknowledge that only natural human beings have inalienable rights and that those rights should not be transferred to artificial persons, aka corporations.
Nine years ago, Cohen was impressed by a debater from the rival Sitka High School. The debater’s name was Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. Cohen lives in one of those districts where the incumbent member of the Alaska House of Representatives was running unopposed. The eight-year incumbent, Bill Thomas, a Native Alaskan Republican, was co-chair of the powerful House Finance Committee. Thomas voted in 2011 to give the oil industry a $2 billion tax break. Cohen was not at all pleased with that and started searching for someone to challenge Thomas.
A week before the June 1 filing deadline, Kreiss-Tomkins—who was one credit short of graduating from Yale University with a degree in political science—took calls from Cohen and the state Democratic Party on the same day asking him to run. As Kreiss-Tomkins puts it, he did his political due diligence. On the day of the deadline, he filed papers announcing his candidacy, and flew home to Sitka soon after to begin campaigning.
Unlike most of his generation, the 24-year-old Kreiss-Tomkins has a keen interest in politics. Or, as he says: “Politics is essential to determining the kind of world you live in.” He knew he was a young white kid facing a powerful older veteran legislator who was also a Native Alaskan (Tlingit), in a district with a heavy Native population outside the major cities. And he knew that getting around Alaska was different from getting around New England or New York. Alaska House District 34 is bigger than the state of New Jersey. And you can’t get around by automobile. It was going to be either plane or ferry.
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