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Discourses With: A Democrat Running for Office in Rural Alaska

A lifelong Alaskan explains what local politics looks like way, way north of the lower 48.

In the past few election cycles, we’ve seen a running theme of Democrats slowly contesting deep-red state legislatures, hoping to lessen the GOP’s grip on local politics. But most of this focus has fallen on Southern states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas, which have gradually moved from red to purple in prior years.

But not every Democrat is trying to take back the South. Some, like Julia Hnilicka, are doing just the opposite. Hnilicka is trying to win a seat located about as far north as is possible in America: the 6th State House District in Alaska.

Republican David Talerico won the last election in 2018 by 19 points. He is retiring after this term; Hnilika is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination and will likely face GOP frontrunner Mike Cronk, who will compete with two other Republicans in the August 18 primary. Another former Republican will be on the November ballot as an independent. 

I called up Hnilicka, a lifelong Alaskan and (full disclosure) acquaintance of mine, to hear about what local politics look like in a heavily rural community well, well away from the national press’s usual attention sphere. 

What pulled you into running for office? 

A year ago I would have not imagined what I am doing now. I had completed my first year of my master’s in rural development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I got an internship where I had the opportunity to travel around to many communities in Alaska, installing low-cost air monitors to study wildfire and road dust. A large portion of wildfires occur in the interior of Alaska. I’m from Nenana, which is smack dab in the interior, and because of the wildfire propensity of the area, I was traveling around to a majority of House District Six. House District Six is larger than the size of Arizona. It’s full of small communities and villages. 

I would be there for the full day, and usually where I was installing the air monitors would be, like, the coffee spot for the community. So I met a lot of people. I would often have these long conversations with leaders: administrators, city officials, librarians, you know, just a good swath of people. And over and over, I heard from people that they felt completely disengaged from state politics and that their issues did not merit attention, that their concerns were going completely unheard and unresponded to.

Before going to grad school, I used to run my family’s company, Inland Barge Service, for over a decade. My father was a boat captain, and I ran the entire business side of it, and built relationships with people up and down the Yukon River and worked with them to make sure that, you know, the freight was delivered on time, that their summer construction projects can be completed, that they got their groceries, their couches, their fuel, their vehicles. I really began to understand over those 10 years the beauty and also the hardship of living in remote Alaska. I wanted to become an advocate for rural living. Protecting our rural communities is just imperative to protecting what’s special about Alaska.

What do your communities need that other people, other Democrats, might not think about and what are the things that they need that you share with communities everywhere?

I think that’s something that I share with communities everywhere is we have a public safety crisis on our hands. I do hear about rural communities and other places suffering from the same crime levels that we are in Alaska. This often has a lot to do with battling addiction, and violence. We recently had Attorney General William Barr come to Alaska, and he dedicated over $50 million to help us fight that, and I have not been able to track down where that money went. I want to make sure the funds that are dedicated to Alaska are being spent wisely. 

These communities oftentimes don’t have law enforcement within the communities. It can take multiple hours or even days for the state troopers to be able to respond to crime, which leads to these situations becoming completely exacerbated. We have a huge problem up here with missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

The program that we developed, many years ago, called the Village Public Safety Officer program, has really been unsuccessful. We haven’t been able to recruit officers because we haven’t been able to engage communities in the program — it’s been so unsuccessful that the funding has been constantly taken from it. This totally takes the legs out of a program that maybe isn’t working perfectly, but we then have no ability to turn it around and create something better from it, because the funding has been so cut. 

It’s just sort of like a cycle — it’s not going to work any better with less money. 

It’s become a negative cycle. We as a society need to address this feeling of safety for all of our people — for our people of color, for our women, for our children. Once people feel safe, then they are able to innovate and dream and create.

What are some of the key conflicts between you and your Republican opponents, and how have their policies had an impact on the communities you’re trying to serve? 

We’re in the second year of the [administration of Republican governor Mike Dunleavy]. He ran on a platform of restoring and repaying our Permanent Fund dividends, which are somewhat of a universal basic income. The GOP ran on repaying our PFD, and returning it to the 1982 statutory levels. Where is this money going to come from, beyond our services? We’ve seen our ferry system cut, commissions into making our one and only mental health institution privatized, our prisons, our railroads. We’ve seen what happens when that infrastructure becomes privatized — it gets taken away from the people, and the future and how we can fix it gets taken away. 

There’s a huge discussion that moving people from rural areas to urban areas is the most cost-effective way to have people exist in an area. And that totally flies in the face, I think, of what makes Alaska where we’re able to hang on to our traditions, our people who have lived on lands for thousands of years. Trying to shift everybody to where it’s lower cost to the state completely flies in the face of Alaskan culture. 

So you think it’s the Alaskan state’s responsibility to spend on robust services and invest in their own people so they can continue that way of life — is that what you mean? 

What I would say is that Alaska is a really harsh place to live in as an individual. Here in the interior, we saw temperatures down to almost 50 below this last winter. We have a TON of snow. It takes a collective in Alaska to make sure that we can survive those hard winters, to be able to have our productive and beautiful summers. We do have a lot of people who feel and who live very self-sustaining, but collectively we still need to work together. We are a small population in a vast and harsh environment, and it is very important that we maintain our traditional lands, not only to the state but to the nation.

I looked up some of the stats for your district — you’re facing a pretty uphill battle. How are you introducing constituents to your ideas and policies and how they might make their lives better?

I’m leaning on who I am as a person and who I am as an Alaskan. And honestly you know, this is a really, really conservative district and I have a really uphill battle to fight. 

When you have a race that is down to the general with four or five candidates you know that this district has not been heard — that there is that much appetite in this district to lead. You can see that there hasn’t been leadership here. What I say to people is that I’m an active listener. Like I said, I traveled around 90% of the district and that is what I will continue to do. 

Just yesterday I was talking to somebody and he said, “Oh, you’re the girl running.” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And he said, “Can I ask you, what party are you from?” And once I told him that I was a Democrat, he screwed up his face and, you know, kind of took a step back. And I said, but listen — I’m an Alaskan first, the first conversation that you and I ever had was up a gun range. Like, I was sighting in my rifle for hunting season. Although I’m a very proud Democrat, I’m just an Alaskan. I don’t particularly care for the partisan fighting and the national division. That is exactly what I’m working against. We have just too few people and too many problems to infight here. 

I strive to respond to every message that I receive, because what’s really going to help me win this election is word of mouth in each community. People saying, “Hey, you hear about that chick? Yeah, she sounds okay. I know she’s a Democrat, but she really sounds like she cares about us.” 

What’s campaigning been like in such a geographically massive district?

It’s hard with COVID because so many of the communities in my district are flying only. In any other year, I would have been very happy to tell you that I was flying on these tiny, tiny planes and bumping along, flying over rivers, heading into communities and road-tripping. You know, last summer I had such an incredible time. That is what I was hoping for campaigning this summer. But our cases are skyrocketing in Alaska. As a Democratic candidate I am not traveling around the district to places unless I contact people and we have pre-arranged times, spaces, and we have protocol. With my opponents, that’s just not happening — they’re doing barbecues, they’re feeding people. 

It has been really challenging to run a responsible race during COVID, especially in my vast, vast district. Now it’s going to take a lot of drawing on my contacts, making sure I have the grassroots.

What would you say to people, to Democrats, outside your community?

I would say you need to listen to people. You need to listen to rural people. It’s very important. They’re leading completely different lives than you could ever imagine. I think rural communities are the backbone of America, honestly, and they’ve gone unheard for a really long time. And it’s really important to make sure that the Democratic Party is exactly what they think that they are, which is this big tent party. Don’t cut us out. Don’t cut rural people out of that because you traditionally haven’t seen us turn towards you. We are hurting. We need help. And if the Democrats can truly honestly listen to what we’re talking about, then we’re going to be able to move the needle in these really, really important places.

Photo courtesy of Julia Hnilicka