Jan | Feb 2014

Hire Good Staff and Make Connections

Alaska Sen. Albert Kookesh knows rural. He’s served the nation’s largest legislative district—250,000 square miles in interior Alaska—in the state Senate for eight years. Like other rural legislators, he’s faced challenges getting bills passed that will help his constituents, many of them Alaska Natives in remote locations. It’s especially difficult, since 52 percent of the people in his state live in three communities—Anchorage, Fairbanks and Wasilla. He offers these tips to other rural legislators.
Kookesh has hired staff who grew up in the rural communities he represents. “You can’t just hire somebody who graduated from Harvard and have them know the area,” he said. It’s particularly important in Alaska, where temperatures can be frigid, so staff have a good understanding of the importance of the needs of constituents. “You have to have somebody who grew up there and knows what it’s like to live in sub-zero temperatures.”
As a Tlingit Indian, Kookesh is familiar with the needs of his constituents—he serves 126 rural communities where 16 native languages are spoken. He believes it’s important to identify leaders in those small communities; that comes through visiting the communities and having staff from those communities. It also helps to connect with groups that understand constituents’ needs. As an Alaska Native, Kookesh is a member of the Alaska Federation of Natives, which has 125,000 members. “We have an advantage because (the federation) always has the plight of the Alaska Native and rural Alaska in mind.”
“Probably one of the greatest challenges was alleviated with the introduction of cell phones and wireless Internet into the communities,” he said. Before that, the communities primarily relied on dial-up access to the Web. It takes an effort for Kookesh to reach the communities he serves—many of the areas are inaccessible by automobiles. But he uses the many different technologies available to stay in touch with the small rural communities he serves, many of them with no more than 50 residents.
Kookesh, a Democrat, has joined the majority caucus—primarily Senate Republicans—to be able to have a voice in decisions. He advises Democrats in the Alaska House to do the same. “The minority doesn’t help you get things done,” he said. Working with the majority caucus, he said, helps Democrats achieve goals in a primarily Republican state. “It means survival to your communities.” While actually joining the opposing party’s caucus may not work in every state, policymakers can work across the aisle. “I try to be the best politician I can and try to work with everybody,” said Kookesh.
Many legislators in Alaska—and other states—may understand the needs in urban areas, but may not be as familiar with the needs in rural areas. Kookesh faces that challenge in many ways. For instance, many people don’t understand that much of the money in Alaska’s budget comes from the natural resources in the rural parts of the state, but they don’t get an equivalent amount of investment in return, he said. By working with the majority, he’s able to talk more about the issues in the rural areas to urban legislators.