DIANE BENSON TAKES ON DON YOUNG FOR ALASKA'S ONE HOUSE SEAT, PART I
Phil Munger is a member of the Firedoglake community who I have gotten to know as a faithful participant in the Blue America project. He lives in Alaska and has been keeping me abreast of the race between Diane Benson and one of the linchpins of the Washington Culture of Corruption, Don Young. I asked him to write the race up for DWT to help people in the lower 48 to get a grasp on what's going on up there. Here's Part I of his report:
In 1959, Diane Benson's mother was pregnant and had tuberculosis, still a common health problem among Alaska Natives, so Diane came into the world in the TB unit at a hospital in Yakima, Washington, near the vital Native community there, rather than Sitka, Alaska, home of her ancestral Tlingit clan.
Diane Benson is a quintessential Alaskan. She has had to struggle against the odds throughout life, but the hardships have only served to draw out inner strengths that now make her one of the hardiest and most vibrant of the group of challengers cornering the slimiest political machine in the history of our Republic.
After high school, Diane Benson went to work on the construction of the Alaska pipeline, driving trucks for Teamster Local 959. While she earned a union living, and raised a family, Benson yearned to be an artist. Whenever possible, she returned to school, eventually receiving a BA in Theater, with a minor in Justice, and then an MFA in Creative Writing. She’s written for newspapers, journals and Native publications. She's participated in theater in Alaska, and has had roles in films, most notably the international award-winning animated film Sacagawea, Disney's White Fang, and the recently released Alaska film, Kusah HaaKwaan. Northern Stars, the talent agency Diane founded, has helped young Alaska artists find satisfying work. Her poetry is gaining notice, and Benson's current role in her own dramatic script personifying Alaska feminist and civil rights pioneer Elizabeth Petrovich has been acclaimed locally as "stunning."
Diane, like many Alaskans, became disenchanted with the leadership of both major parties in the late 1980s, around the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. She was one of the charter members of the Green Party of Alaska, the strongest Green organization in the US. She was the party's gubernatorial candidate in 2002. But increasing despair over the state of our union during the early stages of the Iraq War and growing cognitive dissonance within her own family drew her back to the Democratic Party.
Latseen Benson, Diane’s son, entered the Army after high school, becoming a trooper in the elite 101st Airborne Division. After deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, Latseen's enlistment ended in late October of 2005. But the so-called stop-loss program kept him in uniform for another deployment.
In late September 2005, I listened to Diane Benson deliver the major speech at an anti-war rally in central Anchorage. In a blustery speech on a blustery fall day, she blew the crowd away. Her worry about Latseen's upcoming involuntary extension showed no more than her concern for our country itself. She was animated as she castigated the flawed policies and inept actions of the White House and Pentagon.
Weeks later, Latseen's squad was surprised near Baghdad. He lost most of both legs and an arm to a roadside bomb.
Diane was flown by the Department of Defense to a military Hospital in Germany. This is normally done only when a casualty isn't expected to survive. But Latseen fought hard, as usual, and miraculously survived. He was transferred stateside. Diane Benson later spent time with her son at Walter Reed Hospital. While there, she met dozens of young men who had been grievously injured. She helped Latseen and the others recover.
When she came back to Alaska, in late winter, she ran her dogsled team, mixed them with her son's team. She cried a lot. When she found out the state Democratic machine was unable to present a credible candidate to challenge Don Young, Alaska’s sole delegate to the U.S. House, she focused her rage, rejoined the Democrats, and entered the primary.
After easily sweeping the primary, Diane Benson has had another uphill battle-- attracting party, local and national attention to her fight against the only surviving member of the Abramoff A-Team.
Don Young has been in Congress since Benson was 14 years old. He's the third most senior member of the GOP majority, but has never had to decline a leadership post because none has been offered. Monday in Bethel, the western Alaskan urban center of Yupik culture, the grumpy congressman was miffed he had to wait a few minutes to meet important Native elders. Young petulantly threw up his hands, walked out, took his bush limo to the airport and fled town.
After all, what good are these swarthies for, if not for Asian sweatshops, right Don?
When Diane Benson was 38, Don Young, as chairman of the U.S. House Resources Committee, was statutorily responsible for the welfare of the citizens and residents of the Northern Marianas, an Island dependency of the U.S. He made sure that a Chinese sweatshop developer would be able to import quasi slave labor from China and the Philippines to Saipan to work under incredible conditions cranking out shirts, pants, lingerie and panties labeled "Made in the USA" while being paid dirt.
From that dirt, five-figure transportation fees, housing, food, and communication with families back in the homeland were extracted. Hefty service charges were added. Young discouraged the Department of the Interior from looking into abuses there, and with his close friend Jack Abramoff, killed legislation that would have improved working conditions in the Northern Marianas.
During that time did Young do anything to save the American jobs being transferred to Chinese mob boss Tan Siu Lin's rapidly growing sweatshop empire? Ask Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff or Bob Ney, Young's bosses in this sleazy deal with the worst aspects of transnational corporate abuse of workers. Forced labor, forced abortion, child prostitution, beatings of reluctant and ill workers, and narcotics trafficking mushroomed due to Young's failed stewardship of the Pacific Island trusts.
Back in February of this year, Anchorage Daily News political reporter Liz Ruskin wrote a story on Young's extensive links to Abramoff. The story showed that Young's strident claims of having had no contacts with Abramoff were totally false. Dozens of contacts have been documented. Young had lied to Alaskans, not for the first time, nor the last.
Meanwhile, Young is worried. He has spent more money earlier than ever-- right out of the primary season. He's gone negative in print ads and mailings, spending around a million dollars in a market where that amount is extraordinary. His internal polling, which has leaked out in dribbles, shows Benson closing to less than ten points. This is closer than any candidate has come to Don Young in sixteen years. He has threatened to actively campaign against any Democrat who endorses Diane Benson.
Young should be worried. Alaskans are fed up with Young, his 950 missed votes, his malaprops, his coarse treatment of constituents, his slavish devotion to legislation which helps oil giants like BP and Exxon at the expense of Alaska fishermen and motorists, and his ties to the most criminal members of the corrupt, GOP-dominated U.S. House. Benson yard signs and bumper stickers are showing up all over staunchly Republican communities around the state.
Diane Benson’s campaign strongly stresses material support for our troops, creation of economic opportunities in Alaska so our bridges can be to "somewhere," and equal opportunities for all Alaskans. Her spirited challenge to Jack Abramoff's last man standing may turn out to be one of the biggest surprises of the 2006 national election. If you'd like to lend her a hand, another Firedoglake and Blue America stalwart, Egregious, is collecting contributions for Diane's campaign at her ActBlue Page.