New rural affairs adviser hopes to bridge divide

Posted: Monday, January 06, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Gov. Frank Murkowski's new adviser on rural affairs has been a North Slope oil lobbyist, labor negotiator, Native beauty queen and college rugby player.

Tara Sweeney's varied background should help her handle the wide range of issues she will face, said Murkowski's spokesman John Manly.

Sweeney says she is excited about her new job which begins Jan. 9.

''It gives me the opportunity to address issues in rural Alaska on behalf of the Murkowski administration and to provide clear and open lines of communication between tribal, Native and other organizations in rural Alaska with the governor's office,'' Sweeney said.

Sweeney, 29, is the daughter of former Rep. Eileen and Bryan MacLean. She grew up in Barrow and Unalakleet, graduated from high school in Barrow in 1991, then attended Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and earned a degree in labor relations in 1996.

At Cornell, she tackled the body-bruising game of rugby.

''I love it,'' she said. She played all four years on the school's club. During the same period, Sweeney won Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics and was crowned Miss National Congress of American Indians in 1994.

She also entered the realm of political activism. Sweeney was a founder of the Barrow Republican Caucus and board member of the pro-ANWR drilling group Arctic Power, as well as a delegate to the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and a charter member of the Alaska Native Leadership Network.

She worked for the North Slope Borough as a housing project administrator during her college years and was an intern with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Van Ness Feldman. In that position she started working with Murkowski and his staff as she lobbied Congress to open the Arctic refuge to oil exploration.

Since 1996, Sweeney has been with Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and a subsidiary, Houston Contracting Co.-Alaska Ltd., working in labor relations, shareholder relations and government affairs, including lobbying for ANWR.

As special assistant for rural affairs, Sweeney said her agenda will be the governor's. If Murkowski wants her to drum up Bush support for opening ANWR, ''I'm more than willing to do that,'' she said. ''It's something I believe in.''

Though she has more experience working with Alaska's multimillion-dollar Native corporations than with its tribes and villages, Sweeney said she looks forward to working with the latter.

''A lot of people in my generation are learning more about tribal organizations and their role in Alaska history and the role they can play in Alaska's future,'' she said.

''Some would like to portray that it's (a battle of) corporations versus tribes. But I think both can work together and by working together we can create a stronger future for Alaska. I see no reason for there to be a division,'' Sweeney said.

Sweeney said she sides with people who perceive an urban-rural divide in Alaska. Many believe the split stems from an urban-dominated Legislature they say has snubbed the Bush in education and law enforcement spending and refused to settle the subsistence issue.

To span that divide, she said, the two sides need to know more about each other. As rural Alaskans' liaison with the governor, Sweeney said she can be a bridge. ''It's important to keep that dialogue open.''

Murkowski has said that he that supports amending the state constitution to allow a rural priority for subsistence but that Congress also must amend federal laws governing subsistence issues. Manly said that the governor's legislative plan is still in the formative stages and that subsistence is only one of many major issues to address.

''I don't know that a subsistence solution will be the first thing out of the box,'' he said. ''We want to do some reconnaissance and see where the Legislature is'' before promoting any particular bill. Sweeney, he said, ''will be deep into that issue.''

Sweeney is married to Kevin Sweeney and has two children, ages 5 and 3. She and her family live in Girdwood.

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