Politics

What good is 16 weeks in Congress? Mary Peltola is about to show us

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She launched into her new life about noon Friday last week, flying from western Alaska to Anchorage, where she hopped on another plane around 3 a.m. Saturday, then hustled through the Seattle airport for her connecting flight to D.C., and a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives - a thrilling prospect that may, in fact, be quite temporary.

On Monday she did an MSNBC hit, during which the host compared her to both Barack and Michelle Obama, then swore her oath of office around 6:41 p.m. Tuesday on the floor of the House while wearing the traditional fur-lined footwear of the Yup’ik people. Within the hour she cast her first three votes as a congresswoman, then shepherded her four children and three stepchildren and two grandchildren to a jubilant reception hosted by Alaska Native organizations and headlined by Nancy Pelosi - all while running, on the side, yet another campaign: to retain the office she was just elected to (Alaska’s sole seat in the House) past the Jan. 3 expiration of her new, current, abbreviated term.

“I’m really operating on adrenaline right now.”

11:33 a.m., Wednesday, her first full day as Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola (D-Alaska).

Her nameplate was up outside her new office, Rayburn 2314, the expansive former lair of her predecessor, the late Don Young (R), who was as ornery as she is gentle. The masts by the office door were still awaiting flags. The waiting room was empty except for a box of Dunkin’ Donuts, two apples on a paper plate, and a fresh visitors log that already had the names of six constituents - one of whom had scrawled “YAY!!!!”, presumably in celebration of Peltola’s historic election.

“I am feeling all of the cloud nine emotions,” said Peltola, 49, posture perfect in a green leather chair. The soaring office walls, stripped of Young’s bumptious archaeology (including his vertical herd of taxidermy), had been repainted in the dull buttercream of Capitol Hill bureaucracy.

“And I know that this isn’t a permanent state. Nothing is. Everything is temporary.”

What can you do with fewer than four months in Congress?

Mary Peltola is about to show us.

Her election alone is a major accomplishment in the eyes of Democrats, indigenous Americans, many Alaskans and even some Republicans. Peltola is the first woman to represent Alaska in the House and the first Alaska Native to represent the state in either chamber of Congress. She’s also the first Democrat in the seat since the Nixon administration.

“It’s going to be impossible for me to get through this without crying,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a tribal member of the Pueblo of Laguna, at a Tuesday reception for Peltola in a ballroom of the Kimpton Hotel Monaco.

“I’ve known Mary for a long time,” said Lisa Murkowski, one of Alaska’s two Republican senators, as she walked into the ballroom. “She and I served in the statehouse together. I know the character of the woman. She’s tough. She’s got grit. I feel very proud today.”

“Mary looks like us,” said Republican Tara Sweeney, an Alaska Native who also ran for the House seat, on the phone from Anchorage a few hours before Peltola took the oath. “She understands what it’s like to be in communities with no law enforcement, to have to pack water, to being stormbound in remote communities where you’re guests at the school or the church. She understands those challenges of growing up in rural Alaska.”

Peltola was raised on the Kuskokwim River near Bethel, a 70-minute flight west of Anchorage, by a Nebraskan father and a Yup’ik mother, whose people have fished the area for 12,000 years. At 6 years old, Peltola began catching salmon commercially with her dad. In her mid-20s, after working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Peltola won a seat in the statehouse in Juneau, where she earned a reputation as an independent thinker and a collaborative doer. After 10 years in the statehouse, Peltola focused on the Kuskokwim, helping to manage a nearby gold-mining project and advocating for imperiled salmon runs, which are the region’s economic arteries.

Her congressman, after nearly 50 years in office, died in March, triggering a crowded special election with 48 candidates including Peltola, Sarah Palin and Santa Claus. Peltola didn’t make national headlines. But she had credentials, and campaigned on the issues - “pro-jobs, pro-fish, pro-family and pro-choice” - with comity and grace. This set her apart from the sniping between Palin and the other leading Republican candidate, Nick Begich III, both of whom Peltola will face again in the general election Nov. 8.

“What it all boils down to is how she ran her campaign,” says former Young spokesman Zack Brown, who calls Peltola “a genuinely good person.” She “ran a positive, optimistic, policy-focused campaign that didn’t make personal attacks,” an “important” strategy in Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system, which is designed to encourage civility in campaigning and deliver consensus winners. In the second and final round of ballot tabulation, enough Begich voters ranked Peltola second - and/or omitted Palin entirely - to push Peltola over the winning 50 percent margin.

Recently, rookie representatives have tried demagoguery and disruption in order to make a splash in Congress, but Peltola’s pledge is continuity and goodwill. She hired Young’s former chief of staff as her own, on an interim basis; her interim press secretary, who consulted on her campaign, also happens to be a Republican.

On Monday, when MSNBC host Joy Reid tried to enlist her in partisan combat, Peltola demurred.

“I am very sensitive about the way in which MAGA people feel disenfranchised, forgotten, left behind,” Peltola told Reid, adding: “If you’re an American, I want to work with you. ... I try to stay away from messages of fear and hate.”

In her office Wednesday morning, Peltola was determined to avoid the capital contagions of cynicism and hostility.

“Old habits for me die hard,” she said. “And I default to that more gentle way of engaging, and the subtle ways of communication. I think that a lot can be expressed through body language and facial expressions and gentle words that are maybe even more impactful than being more forthright.”

Beneath the aura of idealism is a sudden and heavy workload: a backlog of constituent requests, a pile of Young’s unfinished legislative business, and a push for the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens act, which governs the management of fisheries in federal waters, plus trips home to Alaska every weekend, and the ongoing campaign to keep the seat.

Everything is temporary, as Peltola says, but how temporary will her time in Congress be? Whether Alaska voters affirm Peltola Nov. 8 or rank the candidates to reinstate a Republican, for this one week in Washington there was bipartisan joy over a single election. Alaska’s Republican senators hugged, smiled and stood with Peltola on the floor of the House during her swearing-in ceremony. The ensuing reception at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco had the warmth of a family reunion and the electric anticipation of a New Year’s Eve party.

“We’ve been here as indigenous people - we predate the government, any law, any congress,” said Denae Benson, 26, a junior Hill staffer who approached Peltola for a photo. “Yet now, in 2022, this is the first time an Alaska Native is representing people in the body that governs them? It’s surreal that it’s taken so long, but it feeds into the hope that the country is changing and growing.”

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