Mary Peltola is a luckier politician even than Tony Knowles. Until this summer, she was an obscure former Democratic state legislator from Bethel. She now is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives because:
In 2020, Scott Kendall, who in 2010 and 2016 was a legal representative for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s reelection campaigns, masterminded an initiative campaign that persuaded Alaska voters to narrowly approve the ranked choice voting system in order to save Lisa from certain defeat in the 2022 Republican senate primary election.
Then last March, Alaska Rep. Don Young died.
Then in June, during the 48-candidate cattle-call primary election to select four candidates to compete in the August special election to serve out the few weeks that remained of Don’s term during the 117th Congress, Mary Peltola, with only 10% of the vote, finished fourth behind Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III and independent Al Gross, who during the 2020 U.S. Senate election had won 41% of the vote.
Then two weeks later, Al Gross unexpectedly dropped out. The next day, Gail Fenumiai, the director of the Division of Elections, decided that Tara Sweeney, a former Arctic Slope Regional Corporation executive who had finished fifth in the cattle-car primary election, would not be allowed to take Al Gross’s place on the special election ballot.
That left a three-candidate special election that, in August, Peltola won only because Palin and Begich had spent the spring and summer broadcasting radio and television commercials in which they had kicked the living bejesus out of each other.
In August, Peltola won the first round of the special election, Sarah Palin finished second, and Nick Begich finished third. But because Peltola did not win 50% or more of the vote, the second-place votes were ranked. When they were, the blood between Palin and Begich by then was so bad that almost half of the voters who had voted for Begich as their first choice could not stomach voting for Palin as their second choice. So they either did not rank or, even more embarrassing for the Alaska Republican Party, more than 16,000 Begich voters voted for Mary Peltola as their second choice. That allowed Peltola to narrowly win the special election by 5,219 votes.
In November, the same thing happened again. Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, the two Republican candidates, and Chris Bye, the Libertarian candidate, collectively won 51.36% of the vote in the first round of the general election. But when the second-choice votes were tabulated, Mary Peltola finished first and Sarah Palin finished second. Palin lost because in the first ranking round, 38.7% of Bye voters either didn’t rank anyone or they voted for Peltola as their second choice. And in the second ranking round, 33% of Begich voters again couldn’t stomach voting for Palin. So they either did not rank anyone or they voted for Peltola as their second choice.
As a consequence of that series of extraordinary fortuities, Mrs. Peltola, as the new Gentlewoman from Alaska now is known on Capitol Hill, will be the 49th state’s sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives during the 118th Congress.
The radio and television commercials she broadcast prior to the general election advertised that Mary Peltola was the mukluk-wearing reincarnation of Don Young who was committed to carrying on his legislative work. As part of the charade, after she was elected to serve out Don’s term in the 117th Congress, she reintroduced a handful of bills that Don had introduced and she touted that she had hired Alex Ortiz, Don’s chief of staff, to serve as her chief of staff.
Smart politics. But since Don Young had been a stalwart conservative Republican and Mary Peltola is an equally stalwart Democrat, that spin was intellectually dishonest nonsense. But because of the bad blood between Nick Begich and Sarah Palin, and between Nick Begich and the many Don Young Republicans, including Don’s daughters, who had been outraged when Begich a year earlier had had the temerity to run against Don, that brazen disingenuity worked.
In January, the political reality will be far different.
When she was asked after the ranked choice votes were tabulated why she thought she had won the general election, Mrs. Peltola theorized that “Alaskan voters understand that in a small delegation seniority matters, even if that seniority is just a few weeks. The 118th Congress that will be sworn in in January is a pretty big class. The 117th Congress, which I am officially a member of, is a much smaller class. So Alaska will have that much more seniority in the House even in the 118th Congress.”
Will that scintilla of seniority be as consequential as she suggested? No, it will not.
That is because, unlike the 117th Congress, the 118th Congress will be controlled by Republicans. Since 2019, Don Young had been the dean of the House, the longest serving Republican member in history. So if he had not died and been reelected, his seniority inside the House Republican Caucus would have made Don an influential member who Kevin McCarthy, likely the new speaker, would have had to accommodate or, at a minimum, could not have ignored.
Mrs. Peltola, by contrast, is a Democrat who will be a back-bench freshman member of the minority party. On the floor, she will have one vote out of 435. And on the Republican-controlled committees to which she will be appointed, her influence will range from inconsequential to none at all.
In symbolic recognition of that political reality, after she was elected to serve out Don Young’s term in the 117th Congress Mrs. Peltola initially was allowed to work out of Don’s spacious office in the Rayburn House Office Building. However, reflecting her lack of seniority in the 118th Congress, she now has been relegated to a cramped office on the ground floor of the Cannon House Office Building.
While in the 118th Congress she will be a member of no consequence, where the new Gentlewoman from Alaska may have a modicum of influence is inside the executive branch. That is because, with control of the House during the 119th Congress being as close as it likely will be, President Joe Biden and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, will want to do what they can to advance Mrs. Peltola’s chances when she stands for reelection in 2024.
For example, on the campaign trail, candidate Peltola told Alaska voters that she wants Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to approve the development of the Willow project, the new oilfield ConocoPhillips discovered several years ago in NPR-A. However, in June, the Sierra Club and 17 other environmental organizations “implored” Secretary Haaland “to slow down the permitting of the Willow Master Development Project and take a careful and comprehensive review of the climate and conservation consequences,” because issuing the permits would “set back your administration’s climate and public lands protection goals.”
President Biden and the political operatives inside the White House who advise him could care less what Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan think about the Willow Project. But they may care what Mrs. Peltola thinks, if she and Rep. Maloney can persuade them that trying to assist the new Gentlewoman from Alaska to hold in 2024 the seat to which she was unexpectedly elected in 2022 is worth provoking the ire of national environmental organizations that are a core Democratic constituency.
So what happens with the Willow project will be interesting to watch play out.
But one thing is certain. With Don Young having joined Ted Stevens in the grave, the outsized influence that for half a century Alaska’s congressional delegation has had on Capitol Hill, which all Alaskans, including me, have long taken for granted, is gone. Over. Finished. Kaput.
Because it is, regardless of their political party or philosophy, every Alaskan has an interest in the new Gentlewoman from Alaska making as much of a success of her tenure as a member of the 118th Congress as the political circumstances with which she will be dealing will allow. So let’s all wish her more of the extraordinary luck she’s had, which over the next two years she’s going to continue to need.
Donald Craig Mitchell is an Anchorage attorney, author of the two books on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and “Tribal Sovereignty in Alaska: How It Happened, What It Means.” He was also a former vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.