KENAI — A day of campaigning on the Kenai Peninsula began for Nick Begich III and Mary Peltola under the gaze of a taxidermied brown bear.
A lunchtime forum at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center was just one stop in a day of campaigning for Begich and Peltola as they run to be Alaska’s next member of Congress. Begich, traveling with his wife Dharna and campaign manager Truman Reed, had hours of print and radio interviews lined up. Peltola, accompanied by campaign aide Hector Jimenez, blocked time for phone calls, hoping to drum up financial support. That evening, both were featured guests at backyard fundraisers, separated by just miles along the Sterling Highway.
At the forum, they repeated well-rehearsed lines about the economy, resource development and jobs. But in separate conversations, each candidate offered deeper insight than their standard speeches about what motivates their bids.
For Begich, it’s the unspoken pain of his childhood that motivated a life of stability that he says he wants to bring to the state. It’s also the political legacy of the Begich name that set him on the path to run for public office, even as he tries to distance himself from his relatives’ more progressive views.
For Peltola, it’s a “pro-family” ethic that underlies her identity as a Yup’ik woman, and an eagerness to overcome the partisan divisions that she calls the nation’s most looming threat. She would be the first Alaska Native in Congress, but she wants to work “for everybody.”
Begich and Peltola are two of three candidates vying to be the state’s next representative in Congress. The third candidate on the Aug. 16 ballot, Republican Sarah Palin, was not in Kenai that day, and her campaign manager Kris Perry has not responded to multiple interview requests. With Palin -- the most famous candidate and arguably the most famous Alaskan -- absent from Kenai that day, Begich and Peltola took center stage.
Dry fish and Pilot Bread
Peltola, a mother of four children and three step-children, and a grandmother of two, said she consulted her kids before launching her campaign. Her 16-year-old said, “I think that’d be really cool. It’d be a lot like what Elizabeth Peratrovich did.”
Peratrovich, who was Tlingit, was instrumental in passing the Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945, and is honored with a state holiday. Peltola says she tries not to think about the significance of her candidacy in that way.
“I am Yup’ik, I am from Bethel, I am a Democrat, I’m a woman, and I want to work for everyone,” she told a crowd gathered on a lawn in Soldotna under a bright August sun. “I want to work for people of every party, of every ethnicity and religion and background and gender.”
The fundraiser drew former state lawmakers who served with Peltola in Juneau along with Kenai residents who listed abortion access as one of the most important issues to them. They ate finger food and listened to chamber music before Peltola spoke.
“The way I was raised, we’re very holistic, we’re very inclusive. It wouldn’t even occur to me to work for one group of people,” she said. “I found out along the campaign that I do have to articulate that, because apparently not everybody thinks that way.”
Peltola says the nation’s biggest threat is partisanship, a sentiment that reflects a lesson that she learned early in her career in the state Legislature. She was 22 years old when she first ran for state House, after growing up in villages in Western Alaska. She lost her first race by 56 votes and returned two years later to defeat the incumbent Ivan Ivan.
“I absolutely went down there thinking that I wanted to go fight our enemies and all these urban legislators,” Peltola said, describing her first tenure in Juneau. “As soon as I got there, I realized that was pretty silly.”
“I learned really quickly that I would never pass any bills, I would never get a capital project, I could never get a line item in the operating budget, if I didn’t have good working relations,” she said. “I needed to have 59 best friends.”
In a campaign ad, she says, “Dry fish and Pilot Bread -- that’s how I got other legislators in the room.”
‘Every penny counts’
After high school, Peltola had attended the University of Northern Colorado with the intention of becoming a teacher. But after an internship at the Legislature, she became passionate about public policy.
She served 10 years in the Legislature, developing a reputation for kindness that carried over to her congressional campaign. She had no sharp words for her competitors during campaign appearances in Kenai -- “I think that’s a waste of everybody’s time,” she said.
After leaving the Legislature more than a decade ago, she went to work for the Donlin Gold mine, as a state lobbyist, and finally as director of the Kuskokwim River Inter Tribal Fish Commission, working on fishery management and food security in rural Alaska before taking leave to launch her campaign.
Bethel is her permanent home, but she hasn’t spent much time there since launching her campaign after Rep. Don Young’s sudden death in March, instead using her husband Gene Peltola Jr.’s home in Anchorage as a base.
“Every penny counts on this campaign,” she said. Flights to Bethel can cost hundreds of dollars, and much of her campaign travel has been done with Alaska Airlines miles donated by supporters. “It’s really challenging for women to raise money and it’s doubly challenging for women of color to raise money.”
While Palin rides private jets and Begich self-finances his campaign to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Peltola has had to think about whether she’ll be able to pay the bills while taking leave from her job to campaign.
“All the things that cost money — I’m at a disadvantage,” she said.
Peltola reported less than $200,000 in assets earlier this year, compared to Begich’s wealth of at least $10 million and Palin’s wealth of at least $950,000.
Asked at the Kenai forum about addressing the federal deficit, Begich said the answer is reducing spending. Peltola said taxes on the wealthiest Americans should be raised -- “I happen to be in the highest paying tax bracket, and I am not a millionaire,” she quipped.
‘Growing your family’
In her congressional campaign, Peltola tells voters that she is pro-choice, pro-fish, pro-jobs and pro-family. She teared up when asked about the importance of family.
“Family for people in Western Alaska is our social security. It always has been. And we are raised to make sure that when we’re hunting and gathering, we’re always thinking about the people who don’t have access to those things,” she said.
While Peltola, whose Yup’ik name is Akalleq, meaning “the one who rolled”, doesn’t mention that historic potential of her candidacy unless explicitly asked, her Native heritage shapes her position on some policy issues.
“In most Native traditions, we don’t really have words for stepsister or stepbrother, or half sister or half brother,” she said. “We tend to not have words that make us further distant, but closer in, and it’s because we knew that that half sister or stepsister or sibling is access to more resources and more labor. There are only benefits to growing your family.”
‘A difficult time’
Begich described his businesses during an interview at Jersey Subs in Kenai, when he paused to listen to his own campaign ad playing over the radio. He smiled. One might think that the grandson of Alaska’s former congressman would have always envisioned himself in this position. But Begich says that is far from the truth.
Nick Begich represented Alaska from 1971 until his plane disappeared in December 1972. That was five years before Nick Begich III was born.
The third Nick Begich was born in Alaska but moved away as an infant, first to Texas, then to Tennessee, back to Texas, back to Alaska, then to Denver, and finally near Orlando, Florida, with his maternal grandparents. He said he didn’t even know he was the grandson of a U.S. House member until he was in middle school.
“My upbringing was one where we never had savings. I never lived in a house that we owned,” Begich said. He began to tear up. “It was a difficult time, so I wanted to make sure that when I grew up, and I had a family of my own, we didn’t have that same experience.”
Begich doesn’t elaborate on some of the difficult details from his childhood -- “It’s too much personal family drama to get into. It’s not my business to tell that story.”
In Florida, he had attended a small Christian school where he played basketball, ran track, and sang in the choir. He was also homecoming king. He received an appointment to the Air Force Academy with the dream of becoming a pilot, but when he learned that his eyesight wasn’t good enough, he made the decision to leave the academy.
“So it was a challenging decision, but recognizing that I was responsible for what happened next in my own life, I took what came next very seriously. College was not some party. It was about building myself up to a position where I could be successful later in life, provide the stability that I lacked for much of my own upbringing,” he said.
He ended up at Baylor University in Texas, graduating with a degree in business. He later got a master’s degree in business administration from Indiana University and worked for Ford Motor Company. He married Dharna, who he’d known since they attended the same high school. They now have a son -- also named Nicholas Begich.
A Republican Begich
At age 27, Begich returned to Alaska and founded FarShore, which provides software and information technology services to other companies. The company grew to be worth millions, with around 150 employees. Most of them are in India and Croatia, and none of them are in Alaska.
“We have to recognize we live in a global world, right?” he said when asked if he has concerns about creating jobs in other countries, even as his payroll includes no Alaskans but himself. “I think we do well to remember that here in Alaska we’re part of a global community.”
Begich’s return to Alaska was not accompanied by any political ambitions, he said.
“I wasn’t raised around politics. That’s strange for people to understand that my upbringing had very little to do with politics,” Begich said.
His wife Dharna, the daughter of immigrants from India, said that Nick’s maternal grandparents embodied her own family’s values -- “You work hard. You put your family first.”
“My love for them is because if it weren’t for them, he would not be who he is and he would not be where he is,” she said.
“People always ask, ‘Oh my gosh, your last name is Begich.’ It doesn’t really make any difference to me,” she said. “When I married Nick, I didn’t have an understanding of what the last name Begich meant or what it held until we moved here.”
Still, Begich says that once he returned to Alaska, people immediately began asking him about his political ambitions.
“I think it was predominantly because of the curiosity of having a Republican Begich. The moment people figured out there was a Republican Begich, they said, ‘Hey, we want you to run,’ and I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to run. I’ve got things to do. I’ve got a business to run. I have other responsibilities,’” Begich said. That was in 2004.
In the following decade, Begich twice supported his Democratic uncle Mark Begich’s U.S. Senate runs, according to Federal Election Commission data. The only other candidates he supported at the time were Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010, and Mitt Romney’s presidential bid in 2012. He also once said he voted for former Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat, in 2015.
Begich also invested capital in businesses owned by Mark Begich and his father, Nick Begich II, who is not politically active and has spent much of his career promoting unfounded theories that HAARP, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program facility owned by the University of Alaska, can control the weather and minds.
“We don’t share those opinions, but I’m a big believer in free speech,” Begich said.
A turning point in Begich’s political ambitions came in 2015, when he said he first considered a run for office. By then, he had built a business worth millions. He credits his financial stability as a motivating factor in his run (“because otherwise you’re going to be continuously distracted by any number of things that have nothing to do with your job.”) In 2016, he lost a run for the Anchorage Assembly. The following year he became the Alaska GOP finance committee co-chair.
His campaign contributions changed too: he regularly contributed to the Alaska Republican Party from 2016 onward. In 2019, he began contributing to Don Young’s campaign. And in 2020, he contributed to Trump’s presidential campaign.
In 2020 he was the co-chair of Rep. Don Young’s reelection campaign. The following year, before Young died, Begich announced he would run against him.
‘A responsible Republican’
Begich says he’s a lifelong Republican because of his upbringing in Florida and the influence of his maternal grandparents. Some conservatives in Alaska aren’t convinced. In social media posts, Palin supporters accuse Begich of being a RINO — a so-called Republican In Name Only.
Begich has appeared to take an increasingly extreme position on some issues that are important to conservative voters, including abortion. In an interview with conservative talk show host Bob Bird in July, Begich said he opposed abortion except in cases of rape and incest. But after the Kenai forum this month, he told Bird in an interview that he would vote to disallow federal funding for abortions in cases of rape and incest.
At a fundraiser in Sterling after the Kenai forum, Begich shared the patio with state Senate candidate Tuckerman Babcock, who previously served as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s chief of staff, and with gubernatorial candidate Charlie Pierce, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor who opposed mask and vaccine requirements during the pandemic, and is challenging Dunleavy from the right.
Begich appears to walk a fine line. He says convincing voters he is not a Democrat has been “the most challenging thing” in his campaign, which he launched in October 2021. He calls himself “a responsible Republican” and “conservative” but stops short of a full-throated endorsement of a Trump run in 2024 — “whoever that most compelling candidate is, they’re going to get my support,” he says.
In the Kenai candidate forum, when Peltola said the nation’s greatest threat is partisanship, Begich’s response was that it is national debt, which rose sharply during Trump’s presidency.
“We’re creating a threat for ourselves over time by continuing to spend in the way we do,” he said, pivoting the question -- like so many others -- back to the economy. What has been good for his own pocketbook, he seems to say, must be good for the nation’s.
Anchorage Daily News reporter Marc Lester contributed to this story.