Anime, Memes and Bear Farming: Huhnkie Lee’s Esoteric Campaign for US Senate

Alaska has always had a reputation for foreign candidates who don’t quite fit into one category and who make a name for themselves through esoteric politics, eccentric behavior and a general refusal to fit into a political mould. Examples include Santa Claus, future Democratic Socialist Congressman from the North Pole, Dustin Darden, Anchorage resident anti-fluoride activist, and possibly Tea Party candidate Joe Miller. You might even consider Sarah Palin something of a right-wing outsider, especially when she rose to prominence during her 2006 gubernatorial bid.

These contestants achieve varying degrees of success, but many end up attracting media attention. Claus’ novelty status made him a brief semi-celebrity outside of Alaska, and Palin’s boisterous “hockey mom” persona earned him a vice-presidential nomination in 2008. However, what whatever their level of political success, these “outsiders” are generally interesting, eccentric. , and generally quite amiable.

Huhnkie Lee is one such candidate. Lee, an independent candidate for the United States Senate, throws his hat in the ring against big names like Senator Lisa Murkowski (R – Alaska) and Republican Kelly Tshibaka. Lee, who espouses relatively unusual politics, traces her political history to Seoul, passing through New York, Wisconsin and California. He was a computer scientist, a PhD student in biology, a soldier in the US Army and even, briefly, an actor, before coming to Alaska to pursue a career in law and politics. His diverse background is reflected in his equally varied political platform. But he’s perhaps best known for his love of karaoke, as evidenced by his Instagram feed and appearances on numerous radio shows.

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When I spoke to Lee one rainy Saturday morning via Zoom from his hotel room in Kenai, he was drinking an Alaskan Amber Glacier Bay IPA. “I am on holiday!” he said happily. He was in Kenai, he said, after attending Salmonfest to see live music and campaign at his base, which he defined as “Independent Alaskans.”

Lee is no stranger to the political process, having run for president and state senate in 2020. Both races ended in failure, but Huhnkie remains confident in his abilities as a candidate to challenge Tshibaka and Murkowski in this election cycle. “Nobody knows,” Lee admitted. “God only knows. That’s what’s great about American democracy…it’s like gambling, you know?

“It gives a chance to a dark horse candidate, like me,” Lee said, when asked what he thought of the ranked-choice voting system recently implemented in Alaska.

And indeed, this new system could very well propel Lee’s campaign overall, given that the top four candidates in the primaries advance. Murkowski and Tshibaka are virtually certain to continue, while Democrat Pat Chesbro remains a reasonably safe bet for third place. Fourth place, however, could be up for grabs between Lee, independent Shoshanna Gungurstein and perennial Libertarian candidate Sean Thorne, whom Lee praised later in the interview.

Lee was born in 1978 to an economics professor in Ithaca, New York, and moved to Seoul as a baby. After earning a degree in computer science from the University of Wisconsin, he pursued a doctorate in computational biology at Cornell in 2004. But after two years, he dropped out of the program. “PhD tests are hardcore,” Lee said with a grimace. “Too much math…So I sold my stuff and started driving west to Los Angeles, California to be an actor in Hollywood. And the rest is history.”

In 2009, Lee says, he joined the military, as a “94R MOS” specialist working on avionics and helicopter equipment systems. After a short stint at Fort Hood, he was deployed to Afghanistan between 2011 and 2012. The deployment was uneventful. “We were never attacked,” Lee said. “I never even left the walls of the international base.”

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After his deployment ended, Lee used the GI Bill to “try something new”. The law, he said, appealed to him because it was different from what he was already doing, a way to start fresh. Lee attended Michigan Law School in 2013. He is a member of the Alaska Bar, admitted in May 2018. Eventually, Alaskan television and documentaries prompted him to move to Wasilla in 2015.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Lee did not raise any money for his campaign. Instead, Lee relies on a quirky social media campaign to reach voters.

Lee’s online presence is as eclectic as his life story. He manages an Instagram, Twitter and Blogspot account mainly dedicated to his campaign. Its ads run the gamut of Gen Z humor and aesthetics, combined with the “extremely online” style that confuses parents and delights kids who have never experienced the internet. Think anime girls, Joker references, hand-drawn images of Lee himself, and 4chan-style mashups steeped in irony, all created and sent in by Lee’s many fans, whether assures credit with an “art friend talent contribution //:-).” Some of these edits push the boundaries of political correctness and lean toward the edgy and offensive — Confederate flags, references to fascism — “trolling,” in Internet jargon.

“They’re our friends, they’re not mine,” Lee chuckled. “They are fantastic artists. They come from all over the world – Africa, Europe, Asia, Middle East…. They come from everywhere.

Lee has become, so to speak, almost a cult figure for a group of internet fans, who support his campaign from afar. Whether the support is ironic or genuine — Lee is, after all, a longtime esoteric independent candidate in one of America’s least populous states — his fans are backing their man.

Lee’s policies are equally eccentric. Its economic platform includes agriculture and, in particular, bear farming. Also, bear organ harvesting.

“Bears live ten years, thirty years, and then they die,” Lee explained. “But when they die, we can harvest their organs and sell them to China and Korea, and make a lot of money… When the bears are very young, we can rent cubs to make pets, for a month, two months.” Although that would violate at least several federal laws aimed at stopping wildlife trafficking, Lee believes his bear programs would be a step toward solving the budget deficit.

“They’re a bit old school, they just go with the mainstream,” Lee lamented at one point, referring to the policies of Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R – Alaska), Sarah Palin and Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson . “Obey, obey, obey.”

Whatever else can be said about the Huhnkie Lee campaign, it’s original – and certainly popular. Lee campaigned around Anchorage, the Valley and the Kenai Peninsula, often wearing his handmade white t-shirt with black lettering reading “Huhnkie Lee 4 US Senator”. If Lee’s campaign goal is to provide another option for voters who are disillusioned with the perceived dominant nature of Alaskan politics, he certainly does — by navigating the wacky vibes and posts of Instagram.

“Do you want to be the President of the United States?” Lee asked me, at one point during the interview. When I replied that if given the opportunity I would definitely run, he replied, “I’ll vote for you when you run for president, okay?”

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We are building Alaska

Mr. Lee, I’ll hold you back – and now I’ve got it in writing.

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