Published on January 22, 2013 by Amy
Diane E. Benson (born 1954) is an Alaskan politician, inspirational speaker, video production consultant, published writer and dramatist. In August 2010, she became the Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor for the state of Alaska, defeating three other opponents in the Democratic primary on August 24, 2010. Benson’s running mate for Governor was Ethan Berkowitz, who lost in the general election. Benson lost to her Republican opponent by 22% of the vote.
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In March 2007, Benson filed in the state of Alaska to make her second bid for the U.S. House of Representatives, but was defeated by Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “Red to Blue” candidate Ethan Berkowitz in the August 2008 Democratic primary. Benson ran for Alaska governor in 2002 and for U.S. Congress in 2006.
According to Benson’s official biography from her website, unlike her older brothers, Diane was born outside of Alaska in Yakima, Washington in 1954, while her mother was being treated for tuberculosis. Of Norwegian ancesry on her father’s side and Tlingit ancestry on her mother’s side, her tribal identity is T’akdeintaan (Sea Tern crest of the Raven Moiety), and of the Tax’ Hit, (Snail House).
Benson grew up in Southeastern Alaska in foster homes and boarding school as well as logging camps with her father and in Sitka with her grandparents. She began volunteer work with senior citizens at Ketchikan Hospital at the age of 12, and although often homeless, worked a variety of social service oriented jobs with the underprivileged and the elderly until she took a position with the Fairbanks Native Association. At the age of 18 she was the youngest person to ever serve on the FNA Executive Board, and was invited by then U.S. Senator Mike Gravel to work in Washington D.C. Diane was accepted to study at Harvard University, but could not attend due to personal and family reasons. Thereafter, she acquired a job as one of the first women tractor-trailer truck drivers on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1975.
In 1977 after working on a gill-netter (fishing boat) in Bristol Bay, and after completion of the pipeline construction, she worked numerous jobs including as a researcher for Alaska Federation of Natives human resources department, layout artist and writer for the Tundra Times, researcher for North Pacific Rim, and other contracts. She paid for two years of college by driving trucks in the early 1980s as Alaska’s first female union concrete-mixer driver. She did volunteer research work for the Berger Commission, and 1986-1988 was a paralegal for Alaska Legal Services. Through the 1990s Diane ran Northern Stars Talent Agency promoting Alaska’s talent in films and commercials nationally and internationally.
In 2001 Benson made local and national news when she objected to her masters degree advisor’s use of her clan (Snail House) in a controversial sexual abuse poem, Indian Girls. Benson filed a grievance regarding disparate classroom treatment but the U.S. Department of Education found in favor of the professor. Benson completed her master’s in creative writing in 2002 at another campus and under the tutelage of Pulitzer Prize winner, N. Scott Momaday. She continues graduate studies on a masters in public policy at New England College.
Benson began performance work in 1980 and has worked with most major Alaskan theatre companies in such productions as Crimes of the Heart, Wonderland, and Keet Shagoon. She taught stage-craft to inmates in Alaska prisons; led at-risk kids in summer theatre and video programs with Out North Contemporary Art House, created the first contemporary Alaska Native theatre in the state of Alaska in 1985; The Alaska Native Dance & Story Theatre; toured nationally with Naa Kahidi Theatre; directed in Canada for the Nakai Theatre Ensemble, was project coordinator for the Silamiut Greenlandic Theatre Project, several time Artist-in-Residence in rural Alaska, and wrote a number of plays including Sister Warrior and When My Spirit Raised Its Hands. Her one-woman show centering on early civil rights leader Elizabeth Peratrovich, has earned Benson acclaim from Native journals and writer’s groups, and was performed in Washington D.C. March 2006 as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s contribution to Women’s History Month. She is currently contributing to a made for PBS documentary on Elizabeth Peratrovich and Alaska civil rights, and just completed co-producing the video, Healing Child Sexual Abuse.
Benson has appeared in Disney’s White Fang, the award winning Box of Daylight, television’s Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, and the International Animated Film Festival award-winning Sacajawea (1989) and the Alaska film, Kusah Hakwaan, as well as numerous industrials and commercials.
Benson has received recognition for her literary and public service work and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Poetry (2000), the Alpert Award in the Arts (2004), and a USA Fellowship (2005). Benson received a gold medal from the International Committee, the Mayor’s Certificate, and an Alaska State Legislature Citation for outstanding work as the 1996 Arctic Winter Games Cultural Coordinator, received a Goldie Award (2005) for her work on the radio program, Today in Alaska Native History, received an Outstanding Service Award (2006) from the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission and a Trailblazer Award (2007) from Delta Sigma Theta, A Professional Women’s Public Service Sorority.
Benson entered the world of politics a week after completing her Masters degree to run as a Green Party candidate (2002) with Desa Jacobson as the first two Native women to fill a ballot for Governor and Lt. Governor. In 2006, Benson returned to the Democratic Party and defeated former state representative Ray Metcalfe, among others, to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Congress, but lost in the 2006 general election run for Alaska’s At-large congressional district to long-time incumbent Representative Don Young, finishing with just over 40 percent of the vote, to Don Young’s 57 percent. Benson ran a mostly volunteer campaign, with little support from the state or national Democratic parties until near the campaign’s end. Her campaign spent about $200,000, about one-tenth of what the Don Young campaign spent. Benson focused in her campaign on a call to end the Iraq War, which alienated many of Alaska’s military personnel, retirees, veterans and their families, a powerful voting bloc in the state’s political landscape. She criticized Young over his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Northern Mariana Islands business interests that Abramoff represented Benson was the third opponent to the incumbent in 33 years to obtain a high percentage of the vote, and the first in 16 years. Benson made history when just before the election she was the first to debate the incumbent in a live televised debate on the local NBC station. Benson also succeeded in breaking a long held policy omitting Congressional challengers at the state’s largest Alaskan conference when she took the stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention at the insistence of the convention delegates to speak as a Congressional Candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. In the end, Alaskan political analysts agreed that her green ties in a large mining and oil state, her support for gun control in the pro-hunting state, her disdain for the military in a pro-military state and her close ties to Barrack Obama, who was extremely unpopular in Alaska, effectively doomed her statewide political aspirations.
Benson lives in Chugiak, Alaska, a community of Anchorage, and has one foster daughter and one son. Her son, Latseen Benson, is an army veteran who was severely wounded in Iraq in November 2005.