Callers on KYUK’s Friday Talk Line program sent an outpouring of support for Mary Nanuwak, and cried foul on the Bethel City Council’s decision not to appoint the Yup’ik elder to an open seat that she applied for. She meets all of the legal requirements and was the only applicant.
Last week, half of the all-male council refused to support Nanuwak to fill the seat left open by Naim Shabani’s resignation. Instead, the majority of council voted to extend the application deadline; there are a few more applicants now. Mayor Rick Robb called in early to the program and listed the qualifications he’s looking for in an appointment.
“I want to pick someone who I think is qualified and competent to make informed decisions on behalf of the people of Bethel. There’s a lot of complex issues,” Robb said.
A surge of calls followed, saying that Nanuwak does meet those qualifications, and that she brings qualities that none of the other council members have.
“She knows our area. She knows the needs of the Yup’ik people. She’s a Yup’ik speaker. None of our council members speak Yup’ik,” said Bethel resident Ruth Evon, who remembers Nanuwak from when Nanuwak worked as a nurse at the local hospital decades ago. “She has the brains. She took care of us,” Evon continued.
Calista board member Robert Hoffman of Bethel said that as a nurse, Nanuwak “handled our people with care.”
“She’s a very highly educated person," Hoffman said. "I’ve known her all my life. She’s a dedicated shareholder for the people, and that’s what we want on the City Council, someone to support the people.”
A caller named Roy from Akiak compared Mayor Robb’s comments to bias. And he took issue with Robb, a man who moved to Bethel 30 years ago from the lower-48, questioning how well-informed Nanuwak is when she’s a Yup’ik elder who’s lived in Bethel most of her life.
“If you want informed issues about this region, she would be very solid and be able to know what is in our best interest,” Roy said.
Another caller, Bob from Bethel, pointed out that the appointment would only last until the October municipal election, and that he wants that person to be Nanuwak.
“She clearly has a grasp on many of the issues that affect us here." Bob said. "This is only for a few months and if people feel that she is not doing an adequate job, they can turn her out.”
Nanuwak told the Council at their last meeting that, “I don’t apply for things I won’t make it to.” Nanuwak is often spotted pushing her walker down the shoulder of the road in Bethel through mud, snow, and rain. She regularly attends political events and is one of the most frequent citizens attending council meetings and speaking during the “people to be heard” part of the agenda. She ran an unsuccessful campaign for Bethel City Council in 2016.
When Mayor Robb was on the radio show, Talk Line host Diane McEachern asked if sexism influenced his decision making.
“Well that didn’t even enter my mind; I hadn’t even considered that," Robb responded. "I’m just looking at the person and whether or not I would trust them to make informed decisions for the people of Bethel, what’s in the best interest of the people of Bethel.”
Talk show host McEachern then asked if there might have been implicit bias involved in the decision to not make the appointment, pointing out that that the bias could be unconscious, but still rooted in assumptions about race, gender, or demographics.
“No, that never even entered my mind,” Robb said.
“Well, that’s the thing about implicit bias," McEachern replied. "You’re not aware of it, but it exists.”
Robb said that he would not support Nanuwak for the position even if she were the only applicant by the time the council is legally required to fill the seat on June 7.
Nanuwak also called into the program. Her message was that people listening ought to consider submitting applications for that seat. “Whoever is listening who is serious about doing their job and helping people, please apply,” she urged.
The deadline is Monday, June 4 at 4 p.m. The council is scheduled to vote again on the appointment on June 5 during its special meeting at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall. Nanuwak’s application will still be considered. So will three other applicants: Fritz Charles, Anny Cochrane, and Brian Henry.
Charles has lived in Bethel since 1995 and ran an unsuccessful campaign for City Council in 2016 . He hosts the Monday morning Yup’ik language KYUK show, “Yuk to Yuk.” Cochrane has lived in Bethel for five years and is an emergency foster parent and volunteers with many community organizations. Henry is originally from Akiachak and moved to Bethel in 2014, after working as a Moravian minister in Bristol bay for many years. He currently serves on the city’s Finance Committee.