Mary Peltola admitting she’s a congresswoman who doesn’t know what day of the week it is isn’t a gaffe so much as trying to keep pace with a sudden political maelstrom where “every day is Monday now.”
“When I woke up this (Sunday) morning and I was getting ready I turned on the Bethel radio station, which is how I start most days, and I thought they had a programming error where they were playing ‘Weekend Edition’ on a Monday,” she said in a phone interview from Sitka at midday. “But they were right, it is Sunday.”
Peltola, 49, a Yup’ik mother of seven who’s risen from relative obscurity to international fame since being sworn in a month ago as Alaska’s first Democratic U.S. House member in about 50 years, was in Sitka for the holiday weekend to visit one of her daughters and participate in the town’s Indigenous Peoples Day events. Which sounds like a pleasant and relatively calm getaway from the political and literal storms she’s faced in Washington, D.C., and Alaska — until she recites everything else happening on this particular Sunday.
“I recorded videos for events that I’m double-booked for and can’t attend,” she said. “I have two more interviews after my interview with you. I’m going to UAS for a land acknowledgement panel that businesses leaders are participating in, I’m doing a meet-and-greet at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall (and) then a tour of the UAS campus this evening.”
The day also saw the publication of the most recent of many mostly upbeat news articles about her time in office. The Anchorage Daily News echoed many previous stories by noting she’s gone to great lengths to hire staff and work with lawmakers from both major political parties, but also that she’s enjoyed a smooth honeymoon thanks to a Democratic House majority during her initial weeks in office.
“I definitely see the benefit of being within a legislative majority,” she told the newspaper, noting she could breathe easy when introducing legislative amendments in committees. She also got high-profile support from House leadership for her one bill that was signed into law, which establishes an office of food security in the Department of Veteran Affairs.
That honeymoon seems likely to end in January since Republicans are heavily favored to recapture the House. Since Alaska is also a state that mostly elects Republicans to state and federal offices, what is Peltola’s argument that she will be a more effective representative during the next two years than her two Republican opponents, Nick Begich III and Sarah Palin?
The first part of Peltola’s answer is to challenge the premise in the same way as seemingly every Alaska candidate facing an uphill battle: her surprise and rapid emergence from relative obscurity amid a pack of 48 candidates to win the Aug. 16 special election to fill the rest of the late Don Young’s term. She won a relatively narrow head-to-head match against Palin in what was the state’s first ranked choice election, with Begich a few more points behind, and since has expanded her lead over both challengers in recent polls.
“There’s no guarantee who will be in the majority,” she said during Sunday’s interview. “A lot of the signals that we’re getting give Democrats optimistic reasons for being in the majority. Pat Ryan won his special election (as an underdog in New York). I won my special election in August. And the vote in Kansas (rejecting making abortion illegal) indicates that perhaps the Republicans do not have the upper hand. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
But Peltola, a former member of the Alaska State Legislature for a decade, also has a ready answer for the most-likely scenario she’ll be in the minority party if elected to a full term.
“All of my muscle member is about being in the minority,” she said. “I served in the minority for 10 years in the state House. I was an effective legislator even though I was in the minority.”
Perhaps more relevantly, “the other thing I want to remind people is that Don Young served most of his tenure in the minority and he was highly effective,” Peltola said.
Peltola’s hiring of numerous Young staff members, including his chief of staff, and reintroducing many of his bills are among the actions that have won her acclaim for bipartisanship. Outside media in particular have also found an idyllic quirkiness in her campaign slogan “fish, family and freedom” (the latter being a more phonetically and apparently politically savvy replacement for the “pro-choice” buzzword in her slogan earlier during the special election).
It’s the first word of that slogan (“fish”) where some of her most notable convergence with Young, as well as policy issues separating her from her opponents, have been evident during the fall general election campaign.
Peltola is making one of top priorities the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs fisheries in federal waters via regional management councils, including a provision adding two Alaska Native Seats to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. It’s the latter provision in particular drawing opposition from many Republicans in Alaska, as well as some lawmakers and officials in the states of Washington and Oregon that have representatives on the council.
“One of the largest reasons I decided to run for Congress was to elevate those issues,” Peltola said. She said she plans to continue those efforts until January — and beyond if reelected — although “I don’t have a lot of confidence the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization will make it through the Senate during the two months of the lame duck session. But I think there are definite benefits to continuing working on it and then use that legislation as a starting point in the next Congress. I think a lot can be done for Alaska regardless of which party takes the congressional seat.”
Appointing two Alaska Natives to the council is prompting criticism by opponents in political — and more coarse — terms since Peltola as an Alaska Native herself (and the first Alaska Native elected to Congress) has frequently stated she is not merely or primarily a voice for that constituency. She again invokes Young’s longtime legacy by stating he supported such appointments and demonstrated her own fervor for the issue in explaining how Alaska Natives have been excluded from the process.
“The only time I ever testified in a hearing on the House side was on the Magnuson-Stevens act and it was as a member of a coalition of 117 tribes lobbying to have more influence on the North Pacific fisheries management process,” she said. “That is because it benefits the biggest, wealthiest and most connected Alaskans. For those of us who do not represent big and wealthy and connected interests, we are having a very hard time even communication with the committees like the advisory panels, and the science and statistical committees. We are having a very hard time getting past the moat. We have a three-minute window to convey our concerns, and then we are completely shut out and dissipated with and minimized and nothing is done with our concerns.
“I don’t think anyone imagined that the Magnuson-Stevens act and the council it created would advocate only for economic interests. I think it’s interesting now that I am continuing the work that I was introduced to the federal process working on it’s now being used against me. This is a group that has been ignored and marginalized for a long time. I don’t think continuing to advocate for an ignored and marginalized group is somehow being unfair to all of the other interests.”
The “freedom” part of her slogan is also where she differs notably from her opponents — although she emphasized the word extends beyond abortion to “the Second Amendment and a lot of other things Alaskans care about.” But while abortion would seem to be less of an issue in Alaska than many other states after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, due to the privacy clause in the state Constitution that protects a woman’s right to choose, Peltola asserts, “I don’t know how protected Alaska really is.”
“During the 10 years I served in the Legislature there was a Republican majority who often brought up taking away women’s rights and access to reproductive health,” she said.
The overturning of Roe earlier this year came after many years of Republican effort to build a favorable U.S. Supreme Court majority and, while drastic near-term change in Alaska via a state constitutional convention or similar action appears unlikely for now, Peltola said it’s important to be strategic rather than complacent.
“I believe the other side has done a very good job of focusing on their long game and we also need to focus on our long game,” she said.
As for what distinguishes Peltola from her opponents in the third part of her slogan — since no rational candidate touts themselves as “anti-family” — she said she’s not focusing on their specific platforms. She said her agenda includes reinstating the expanded Child Tax Credit, and supporting private and/or public sector efforts to provide housing to remedy shortages occurring in communities from her rural hometown of Bethel to Anchorage.
As for specific bills she might author to achieve those goals, Peltola said she’ll focus much of her efforts on the political reality of providing cold hard cash to bring warmth and shelter to those in need in the Last Frontier.
“My job isn’t just to write bills and enact legislation,” she said. “It’s the budget process. The budget is the most important policy document the government puts out.
“That is where we will illustrate where our priorities are. I’m going to be looking at our budget process and asking what’s in it for families, what helps Alaska families.”
Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org.