Age, Gender, Politics: New Bethel mayor tackles all

The women’s liberation movement (WLM) that shook up the Lower 48 during the 1960s had little impact on the state of Alaska. Yet somehow, women have been smashing Alaska’s glass ceiling in such numbers that it would seem the WLM started here.

Powerful positions of corporations and state are filling up with women, in a state where they are still the minority.

One of the latest women to join the ranks is Tiffany Zulkosky. Public Information Officer of Yukon- Kuskokwim Health Corp. and Bethel City Council Member, Zulkosky, 24, was just elected Mayor, Oct. 20. It is not her gender, however, that has people talking; it’s her age.

Voted into city council at 23, Zulkosky said several members were quick to use words like “na’ve” and “young lady.”

“It’s always heavy to handle that professionally,” Zulkosky said. “And at the same time put my foot down and say, ‘I have just as much authority in this seat as you do, and I should be respected and treated as such.'”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 50 percent of the population in Bethel is 25 or younger.

“At the time I was running, nobody represented. that age group,” Zulkosky said. “And it’s kind of a disservice to the people of that demographic.”

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Zulkosky said Bethel has a slew of the same issues that many small communities face, like alcoholism, teenage pregnancies, high dropout rates and energy costs. These issues significantly affect young people. She said she feels she can have a greater impact on the youth community than her elders can.

Zulkosky is not the first young woman in Alaska to step up and take political charge. Mary Nelson, Bethel’s Juneau representative; Mary Pete, the director of the UAF Kuskokwim Campus; and Ana Hoffman, the president of Bethel Native Corporation all started their careers in their 20s.

“There are a lot of young women. who have paved the way,” Zulkosky said. “These are the women who have kind of tackled the stereotype of young Native women being too inexperienced and too na’ve to serve. And obviously they’ve shown that it is possible.”

Zulkosky herself has shown that anything is possible. In high school, she was one of 50 students statewide selected to be a delegate at the Conference of Young Alaskans at UAF.

After she graduated from high school, Zulkosky left Bethel to attend Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash.

“When I was a little girl, I used to dream of being a journalist in a big city with a loft apartment,” said Zulkosky. “And I dreamt that every morning I would wake up at 6 a.m. with a cup of coffee to start my day.”

NU didn’t offer a degree in journalism, so Zulkosky changed her major to organizational communication and graduated with honors in 2006.

While at the university, she still had the intention of pursuing a career in journalism, until during her sophomore year when she heard the university president speak.His speech impassioned her to get involved in a different way.

Half Yup’ik Eskimo, Zulkosky said she always felt an inherent commitment to where she was from and to her culture. She said that in high school there was a lot of encouragement from her teachers to go on to college, but then to later give back to the community.

“I wrote a lot about that in my college scholarships, but it never seemed like a reality,” said Zulkosky. “And then when I went to college, there was something that made me fall in love all over again with Alaska and with Bethel and with just the unique issues and unique challenges that we face. That made me want to come home.”

Bethel, a rural city of less than 6,000 inhabitants, is a strong contrast to Kirkland. Zulkosky said the freeways, tall buildings and seemingly endless amounts of concrete in the urban centers made her feel claustrophobic. She was dedicated to getting her education and saw it through to the end, but in the end, the rolling tundra of the Bush called her back.

When Zulkosky returned home, she jumped right into being socially and politically active in her community. She began a diligent campaign for City Council.

“She’s pretty determined,” said Zulkosky’s mother, Z. “When she sets her mind to something, she does it. Even when she was a little girl.”

Zulkosky said she had a very close relationship with her mother growing up; just the two of them in a two-bedroom house down a tree-lined driveway in Bethel.

“I’m still living at home with my mom,” Zulkosky laughed.

Patricia said that before her daughter was elected to city council, she could ignore politics and not get involved.

“I started paying attention to the city council meetings, because I wanted to see what she sounded like,” Patricia said. She listens to the meetings on the radio all the time now. “I’m proud of her, but I’m a mom at the same time. I worry, ‘Is this going to be good for her?'”

Zulkosky’s father, Joe Hinv, lived in Kipnuk, a small village about 45 minutes west of Bethel along the Bering Sea Coast. She said that even though he hadn’t been as involved with her day-to-day like her mother had, he was still a big part of her life and very supportive of everything she did.

On Election Day, Zulkosky spent the evening with both her father and mother in the same house where together they awaited the election results.

“[My father] was very proud of my accomplishments. He was dead set on being there for when we found out the number of votes that I got,” Zulkosky said. “So it was really interesting to be in my living room with both of my parents waiting for the election results. It was such a normal middle class American kind of situation. I had grown up outside of that norm so it was very funny – ironic I guess.”

When the votes came in, Zulkosky said she was amazed and honored. It was a landslide victory: 408 votes out of approximately 600, with six candidates and only two seats.

Council member seats used to have a term limit of three years, but the year Zulkosky was elected, they changed it to two years. Because she was the highest vote-getter, they let her choose. She chose a three-year term.

Bethel is a second-class city, in that the mayoral position is not elected by the populace, but by the council. Last week, after only one year as a council member, Zulkosky was voted 6-1, mayor of Bethel. Her term as mayor will last one year, during which she will still be a sitting council member. Afterward, she will have one year left on the council.

Despite the tremendous success Zulkosky has experienced over the past year, she has also had to experience great tragedy. In January, ten months before she would become mayor, her father passed away at the age of 58.

“It’s been a very challenging year,” Zulkosky said. “Dealing with this contentious council that we had at the time, and then dealing with the loss of someone that you’re developing a closer relationship with was – it has been difficult.”

Despite the tough personal and professional challenges she has faced this year, Zulkosky does not seem to have lost her vision.

“I’m very committed,” she said. “I feel so honored and so blessed that my community would have the faith to put me into office with such overwhelming support. I definitely look forward to my years of service.”