Somerville's Style
Controversial Appointee Distorts What Critics Say

Anchorage Daily News / Opinion / February 10, 2003


Newly appointed state Game Board member Ron Somerville has a reputation for incendiary rhetoric, especially on matters involving Alaska Natives. When this is pointed out, he takes grave offense -- and spews more incendiary rhetoric.

A recent Daily News editorial, commenting on Gov. Frank Murkowski's Game Board appointments, briefly pointed out Mr. Somerville's record on subsistence. Using a classic propaganda technique, Mr. Somerville distorted the comment and tried to turn himself into the wounded victim.

Here's the entire editorial passage relating to Mr. Somerville: "Gov. Murkowski's appointments also include members who have repeatedly fought a subsistence priority for rural residents. Ron Somerville in particular has been a high-profile critic, repeatedly using rhetoric that shows little sympathy for the role subsistence plays in Alaska Native cultures." (emphasis added)

Mr. Somerville reacted as if he'd been accused of joining the Ku Klux Klan. The editorial, he wrote in a full-length column in the Feb. 4 Juneau Empire, "accused me personally of being anti-subsistence and basically racist."

The word "racist" never appears in the editorial. The editorial does not accuse him of general animus toward Alaska Natives. It merely points out his long-standing fight against the rural subsistence priority. For more than two decades, Alaska Natives have defended that priority as an important way to protect the hunting and fishing that are the lifeblood of their cultures.

In his commentary, Mr. Somerville went on to claim that "what Gov. Tony Knowles did to fish and wildlife management in Alaska during his eight years in office was terrible, possibly even criminal."

So what is he saying? That Gov. Knowles sold seats on the Fish and Game boards? If he's going to keep making defamatory statements like that without a shred of evidence, he'd better have a good libel lawyer.

Despite using such hyper-ventilated rhetoric, Mr. Somerville claims he is being attacked for a "mythical rhetorical reputation."

Let's look a little further at Mr. Somerville's record to see just how mythical that reputation is.

Mr. Somerville vaulted into the spotlight in the 1980s by attacking the rural subsistence priority. He helped lead an unsuccessful voter initiative to repeal the priority in 1982. When he ran for governor in 1986, his opposition to the rural subsistence priority was a prime plank in his platform.

During his gubernatorial campaign, he boasted that he was not afraid to take on "racially sensitive issues others won't touch." He downplayed Native concerns about protecting their subsistence hunting and fishing, saying "I consider Native people a special interest group."

Mr. Somerville also blasted the notion that Native communities might gain authority to govern themselves under federal Indian law. Doing so, he said, would "bring about social and economic chaos to Alaska on a massive scale." He decried "The specter of Alaska being carved up into over 200 sovereign pieces," and said Native self-government would bring Alaska "South African style of apartheid."

That's awfully inflammatory rhetoric to describe an arrangement common in Native communities throughout the Lower 48. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens was no big fan of Native sovereignty in Alaska, but he chided Mr. Somerville's divisive rhetoric, saying he should not "demagogue the Native issue."

Mr. Somerville claims he has always been misunderstood.

"I'm appreciative of cultures, the subsistence uses of our resources," he told the House Resources Committee Feb. 5. "I'm respectful of all the variety of, particularly the Native, people . . . I respect the Native people who live in urban areas." Some of my best friends are Native, he told the committee.

All well and good to say. But that fact remains that he long has been unalterably opposed to today's legal protections for rural subsistence -- a system just about every Alaska Native organization supports as the minimum level of protection their cultures need to survive and thrive.

Mr. Somerville responds to that fact with an Orwellian twist of language. "I believe in subsistence, TRUE subsistence, as much as anybody sitting here," he told the House Resources Committee.

Whatever he thinks "true subsistence" is, it is not the kind of subsistence Alaska Natives have practiced and want to preserve.

To Mr. Somerville, it's a mystery why people don't understand what a reasonable person he is. No mystery there. They are just listening to what he says.

If there's a mystery with Mr. Somerville, it's this: How can someone who is so inflammatory and irresponsible with his comments be considered fit to hold a high public office?

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