In 2006, Benson ran an impressive race against Republican Representative Don Young for Alaska’s single at-large seat. She spent approximately 10% as much as her opponent but still won over 40% of the vote – only the third time in 33 years a Democratic challenger had crossed that threshold in vying for the seat.
This time around, Rep. Young has spent over $1 million – including campaign funds – as he faces criminal investigations for bribery and extortion. He’s also tarnished by rampant Republican corruption in Alaska on the state and federal levels – the latest case involving Senator Ted Stevens who was indicted last Tuesday on federal corruption charges. Benson’s candidacy offers a refreshing contrast to the abuse of power that Alaskans have grown weary of. But in 2008 she has also faced stiffer competition in the Democratic field – now whittled down to two candidates. On August 26, she and former State House Democratic leader Ethan Berkowitz will square off in the primary. Congressional Quarterly wrote that the race is too close to call.
As Benson told Indian Country Today, “People see that there’s a wounded moose in their midst. I remind them it’s like a pack of wolves circling the moose. It took the first wolf to strike to start bringing it down. The fact is, I’m the one who was out there when it didn’t look possible. I frankly think that’s the kind of representation people need.”
But Berkowitz has received the nod and financial support from the Inside the Beltway Democratic establishment. He received contributions from Rahm Emanuel’s PAC and is listed on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee website as part of its “Red to Blue” slate of candidates. The more progressive 21st Century Democrats, on the other hand, recently endorsed Benson. Among other issues, the group cited her commitments to universal healthcare, alternative energy, and clean elections. In a statement 21st Century Democrats wrote, “Diane’s opposition to the war and disgust at the poor treatment of veterans like her son prompted her to challenge long-serving Congressman Don Young in 2006. Under-funded and without national support, Diane gave him the closest race he had faced in decades. She was willing to take him on again before his ethical troubles gained traction and other Democrats decided to enter the race.”
I asked Benson how she responds to the fact that the Washington Democratic establishment hasn’t supported her – or, at the very least – stayed out of the primary given her success in 2006.
“I think people are always scared of somebody who challenges their values,” she told me. “I believe I have challenged the values of the party. I’m asking them to really step up to what they claim to be. And sometimes that’s tough for people…. Not just in terms of the issues, which is one thing. There’s a certain safety net in a good ole boy network. Insiders support insiders too often. And trying to break-up the game – it’s like standing in front of a bunch of guys [who are watching] Monday Night Football [on] the TV set. Good luck.”
But if there’s one thing Benson has in abundance it’s toughness. In her attempt to become the first Native American woman in Congress – as well as the first Alaskan Native man or woman – she calls on that toughness every day.
“You really take a beating out here when you run for office, I can tell you that,” she said. “You have to be thick-skinned enough, you have to be tough enough to put up with this every single day. It’s not to say that every day is really bad, it’s not. It’s just that it’s a grueling exercise, it’s like being interviewed for a job repeatedly, 24/7.”
She says that’s especially hard for people who “don’t come from money,” and believes that’s part of the reason more women don’t run for office – an issue she says she thinks about “every single day.”
“How many women with a political bent come from money or aren’t already overextended?” she asked. “Most women I know – and many brilliant women – are overextended with taking care of families, communities, and community obligations as well as their jobs.”
Benson’s strength and determination stems at least in part from her background. She “grew up in logging camps, boarding schools, foster homes and even on boat houses,” according to Indian Country Today. At times she was homeless. She worked her way through college as a Teamster truck driver and was one of the first women tractor-trailer drivers on the Alaska Pipeline – she often was the only woman on the jobsite. Benson said that was a tough job to get.
“I could prove that I could do the job and the union stood up for me,” she said. “And they stood up for me time and time again, and I will never forget that.”
Educated in Alaska, she earned her Bachelors Degree, a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and is now working on her Masters in Public Policy. She also attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and co-produced a PBS documentary about Alaska Civil Rights. She ran sprint-races as a dogsledder and – along with her son –had 32 dogs at one time. But it wasn’t until 2005 when her son, Spc. Latseen Benson, was injured by a road-side bomb in Iraq and was a double amputee that she turned to politics. She spent three-and-a-half months with him and his fellow-soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“My family has a strong history of military participation and, you know, we’re proud of it,” she said. “And on the other hand, we don’t – and I don’t – see us just going to war at the drop of a hat, or at somebody’s whim. I think it’s really because I have this experience and this history I understand what it is to send our troops. And I feel that there are too many in Congress who do not, and that my opponents do not as well….”I’ve been very strong about seeing us get out of this Iraq War – as it’s called – and have maintained that position all along. And at the same time have been able to garner a lot of veteran support as well as having spent a lot of time working on veteran issues. None of my opponents on either side of the aisle have a history with working for veterans, on veterans issues, or having any way of understanding veterans issues in their experience. That distinguishes me from all of them.”
Benson was surprised that in a recent debate she was the only candidate to repeatedly bring up veterans issues – one of the other candidates brought it up maybe once, if that. With 80,000 veterans in the state, responding to their issues is a key part of her platform.
As for Iraq, said she would begin preparing for withdrawal right now. “I know what it is to mobilize and to bring them home – that’s a major undertaking. I’m familiar with that just because I’ve watched the movement of our troops – especially when I was following my son’s movements when he was serving over there. It takes time and strategy to safely redeploy them… [We need to] prepare for that step right now and plan the withdrawal right now.”
Her son enlisted following September 11 to fight in Afghanistan and she believes the conflict there is “worthy of our attention.” But she doesn’t use the term “War on Terror” saying, “That’s like having War on Poetry – what’s that mean?” She wants to see “strong diplomacy and work with other nations to solve some of these problems…. I don’t want to see us just caught up in only military solutions as our knee-jerk response to every problem or trouble that comes into the world.”
Both Benson and Berkowitz poll far ahead of Rep. Young, and Benson is now focused on distinguishing herself as the progressive choice and turning out her voters.
“What stands out the most – one, I’m not a career politician. And two, I really do want to clean-up government and that to me means you don’t take money from industry lobbyists and industry PACs, because if you do want to clean up government it should probably start with the campaigns,” she said.
Benson points to the PAC and lobbyist support of both Berkowitz and Young and said it points to a “fundamental difference” between their campaigns. According to Benson, in the most recent debate both men “were speaking to how good having lobbyists really is, and that they take that money without expecting to be beholden to them.” She reflected on Congressman Barney Frank’s saying that “being a politician is the only profession in America where you’re required to take money from strangers and pretend you don’t owe them anything.”
“I figure, you know, when was the last time a career politician went to Washington and became less indebted to special interests?” she said. “I mean, let’s ask that question. To me it’s like sending an alcoholic to a bar to sober up…. When we look at the make-up of Congress, what do we see? We see a lot of millionaires and a lot of lawyers, and how much of the people’s interests are being represented over big special interests?”
Benson believes that reforming our big money, special interests politics is vital at this time of economic hardship.
“People are very sensitive right now about what the future holds and are rather frightened for it,” she said. “When we have here in this day, a resource rich state, people who are suffering in poverty. We have a large homeless population in the Anchorage vicinity…. I would doubt that any of my opponents have done what I’ve done. I have visited the prisons, I visited the homeless shelter… I’ve spoken to treatment groups about drug and alcohol issues. I have spoken with Elders at luncheons on issues that affect them – particularly the families. And issues of homelessness and poverty in this state are not favorite issues, as a matter of fact it rarely comes up.”
But the struggles of every day life are very real to Benson. “Our biggest threat this winter as Alaskans is the lack of fuel and just heating oil for homes across – especially in the rural areas of Alaska. And I think where we might differ is how I am more understanding and committed to rural Alaska than any of my opponents could possibly be, and I don’t know if that’s just because I understand it so well from growing up in rural Alaska having lived a good part of my life out there. And, coming from that kind of background, knowing what it is to subsist. I grew up with that, none of my opponents have grown up with subsistence nor have they had to.”
She was the only candidate to attend a recent Energy Summit in the state. The Speaker of the State House introduced her and praised her for looking for solutions prior to serving in office. Benson emerged from the gathering feeling hope and excitement about at least one new technology that she discovered while touring a geothermal plant. She said that a “$3500 greenhouse system” could be used to grow food anywhere. With some federal funding “you could send that system out to all of the villages – we have over 200 villages – they could have fresh produce that they grow that serves the community. They could use it however they want – do they want to sell it to their community, do they just want to feed their community? It’s so simple. And it would support certain transportation costs to those rural communities. They wouldn’t be threatened by being weathered in and running out of food. I mean, it solves so many problems. I can’t believe not one other person has talked about this.”
Perhaps one of the most telling moments that distinguishes her as the progressive candidate in this race was her response to Senate Democrats passing the FISA bill. She was the only candidate to immediately release a tough statement criticizing its approval. “The Constitution is not a list of suggestions,” she wrote. “It is a list of rights that no President and no Congress have the right to take away.”
“You know, I was frustrated because – I’m a Democrat – we need more Democrats who are willing to take a stand like that rather than having Democrats that cave or end up being called Bush kinds of Democrats,” she told me. “And it’s very troubling to me to see anybody, frankly, regardless of party, compromise our civil rights and our civil liberties…. If it’s about justice for people, about what’s right, human rights matter to me maybe because I grew up so much without, that I’ve become very sensitive to the rights of fellow human beings.”
Indeed Benson has fought long and hard for her own rights as she has blazed a unique trail for herself and her family. I think one particular story about working on the pipeline captures her spirit as well as her candidacy.
“I was on a trucking crew on the South side. It was a new crew and I was the last truck to come in,” she described. “There were about 30 trucks all lined up, and instead of saving me a space on the end where I could park my rig, they saved a space in between two rigs. And then [the men] all sat on the bus and waited for me to park my rig while they all watched – to squeeze in between these two rigs…. And so I pulled the truck forward, and I pulled in one movement back into the parking place with only – literally, I got out and measured it – two inches on one side and one inch on the other, between the mirrors of their trucks and my truck….And I got on the bus and you could hear dead silence until one guy finally says, “Make room for the trucker.”
Years later, Benson offers Alaskans the kind of fearless, progressive representation and leadership that all Americans really need right now. Click here to support her campaign.