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Violence against women emerges as key campaign issue in Alaska

Violence against women emerges as key campaign issue in Alaska
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), left, and his Republican challenger, former state Atty. Gen. Dan Sullivan, at a debate in Kodiak on Oct. 1. Both candidates have spoken out on violence against women. (Nicholas Riccardi / Associated Press)

The woman was terrified her boyfriend would find her. He had beaten her up, torn her phone from the wall. He was after her. He had a gun.

So she pounded on her apartment manager's door. The 17-year-old who answered let her in and dialed 911.

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"I remember what I said to this day," Democratic Sen. Mark Begich told a rapt audience as he campaigned for reelection last week. "I said, 'I'm in my apartment. I have a woman who's being beat. I have a gun. And I will protect her. You should show up.'"

Begich isn't the only politician talking about violence against women this campaign season in Alaska. A sex abuse scandal in the Alaska National Guard has reverberated throughout the Last Frontier, in particular hanging over the governor's race.

Incumbent Sean Parnell's once-sure victory is now in question; the Republican is commander in chief of the military unit, and he has been dogged by questions about how much he knew about the allegations of widespread sexual assault in the Guard.

Violence against woman is a regular topic on the campaign trail — a first in the state's 55-year history. Voters broach the issue at debates, town hall meetings and luncheons, like the one where Begich told of his brush with battering 35 years ago. Begich's opponent, Dan Sullivan, also has raised the topic.

Sullivan, a former state attorney general, spent a recent campaign stop at a middle school instructing eighth-grade boys. "You can't treat your girlfriend abusively," Sullivan said. "If you ever get married, you can't do that to your wife. It's not what men do."

The statistics paint a dismal picture here: Alaska leads the country in the rate of forcible rape, three times the national average. It has the highest rate of men killing women. It is among the top states for domestic violence.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Alaska No. 3 in the nation — after Oklahoma and Nevada — for the percentage of women who have endured "rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner." In Alaska, 44.2% of women have been victimized in their lifetime, compared with 32.9% in California and 32.3% in New York.

Nearly 60% of all women in Alaska have been victims of rape or domestic violence or both in their lifetimes, according to a study by the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, whose researchers say the results could be conservative.

Last week the Alaska chapter of the National Organization for Women cautioned residents to vote online or by absentee ballot if they "live in hostile environments where, for safety, they avoid discussing or engaging in political matters." Translation: Even democracy can be dangerous for battering victims.

"Our rates of violence are so high up here that anyone who is considering running has to have a stance on the issue or there's no hope for them," said Amanda Price, executive director of Standing Together Against Rape, an Anchorage-based advocacy and victim services group. "It has not been this front and center before."

"The National Guard scandal has drawn some attention and required candidates to have a stance and a plan on how to minimize violence against women," Price said.

Reports of violence against women are regular fodder for local media. Last week there was the 26-year-old wanted on a felony warrant "for a probation violation stemming from a conviction for attempted assault of a minor" and the arrest of a 22-year-old wanted on multiple charges of sexual assault and sexual assault of a minor.

Details of the National Guard controversy crop up almost daily. Headlines blare: "National Guard documents detail chronic misconduct among recruiting leaders." "State senator wants hearing on National Guard problems."

Allegations of widespread sexual assault and official stonewalling in the Guard were first reported in the Anchorage Daily News a year ago, when a group of Guard chaplains disclosed that victims of sexual assault had been coming to them for years.

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Many of the women said they had been raped by fellow Guard members. Some said they had been drugged and assaulted. The chaplains said they reported the allegations to Parnell in 2010, but nothing resulted from their conversations.

Melissa Jones came forward with information about being sexually assaulted in 2007. Jones, who was 27 at the time, was out after work with fellow Guard members when someone slipped something into her drink, she said in an interview with The Times on Monday. She said she was later attacked in her apartment.

After reporting the incident to her commander in confidence, she went on leave.

"When I returned," she said, "everybody knew. Even high-ranking officials were talking about my situation and knew about it when they had no business knowing. What was worse? What happened to me. But the re-victimization that occurred — the complete disregard for human decency and the betrayal — were more to deal with than I needed to deal with at the time."

Jones is now with the Illinois National Guard and is in the process of a medical discharge. The diagnosis? "PTSD," she said, "from the incident."

A scathing, 229-page report by the National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations released in September found that complaints by some sexual assault victims before 2012 were not properly documented, that victims were not referred to victim advocates, that their confidentiality was breached and that, "in some cases, the victims were ostracized by their leaders, peers and units."

Parnell has been on the defensive since.

In 2009, then-Lt. Gov. Parnell became governor when Sarah Palin resigned the office, and he was easily elected in his own right in 2010. Today, he is fighting for his seat, and he cannot avoid his state's reputation for violence against women or the Guard scandal.

At an Oct. 1 debate sponsored by the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce, a voter emailed in a question about the gubernatorial candidates' "plans to reduce sexual assault, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide in Alaska."

Concrete plans to attack the state's long-standing problems were quickly elbowed aside by a particularly nasty exchange between Parnell and Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-independent who leads in the polls.

Walker: "When someone comes to my office as governor to tell me about sexual assault going on in the National Guard, I'll do an investigation immediately. I will not wait four years."

Parnell: "I was taught by my parents to address a big lie head-on, and so I'm going to do it head-on right now. Bill Walker just said that I did nothing in the face of sexual assault [allegations] coming to my office or me learning about them. It is an absolute falsehood.... I want to set the record straight."

The state's largest media outlets have sued the governor to obtain public records that are expected to reveal what Parnell and his administration knew about the scandal and when.

On Wednesday, Parnell released a six-minute video to outline his record of combating violence against women.

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Asked about the timing and the impetus for the video, campaign spokesman Luke Miller said it came from the governor's office and was not a part of Parnell's reelection effort. Sharon Leighow, the governor's spokeswoman, did not respond to a request for comment.

On the video, a somber Parnell said that "in 2010 some allegations were made." They were serious, he said, and he followed up on them all.

Parnell acknowledged that, at the time, he turned for answers to Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Katkus, Guard commander and commissioner of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Katkus was forced to resign in September.

Efforts are underway to enact what Parnell called "complete reform" of the Guard. The perpetrators of the "atrocious acts" will be held accountable.

"Alaskans," the governor said, "you know me and my heart for helping people escape the nightmare of domestic violence and sexual assault. This is my life's work."

Twitter @marialaganga

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