WASHINGTON — In her first weeks in office, Alaska U.S. Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola has walked a careful line.
She is a Democrat who says she wants to pick up pieces of her Republican predecessor’s unfinished agenda and says she’s willing to break with the party line in the interest of Alaskans — efforts political observers say will aid her reelection campaign. Yet she’s also reaped the rewards of being a member of the majority party.
Peltola replaced the late Rep. Don Young after an August special election and was sworn in Sept. 13 to become the first Alaska Native in Congress. Between her swearing-in ceremony and election day on Nov. 8, Peltola had 11 days to work on Capitol Hill with the House of Representatives in session.
In that time, she defied clear party characterization, especially on resource development. She has said she’s a “pro-development” candidate, and her early days in Congress have tested exactly what she means.
Peltola joined Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan in a Sept. 20 letter calling on the Interior Department to quickly approve the Willow oil project so construction can start this winter. Though President Joe Biden has signaled support, the ConocoPhillips North Slope project has drawn opposition from conservation groups, some Indigenous groups and several of Peltola’s peers in the Democratic Party, like Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. During Peltola’s first week in office, she listed Willow as one of her top priorities and said the project’s approval would be “a big win for Alaska.”
But earlier, Murkowski and Sullivan sent a Sept. 15 letter urging the Interior Department to approve a 200-mile access road in Northwest Alaska to the so-called Ambler Mining District — without Peltola’s signature. The Ambler Road is contentious. Developers say the road is essential to reach critical minerals and create jobs, but conservation groups and some tribes in the area are concerned the project threatens the environment and subsistence resources.
In a Sept. 30 interview, Peltola said she would be open to Ambler Road and planned to send a letter of her own. However, she didn’t sign the senators’ letter because it didn’t mention her hope that the road be private. She also said the letter’s “harsh tones” made it difficult to sign.
“I’m not really here to be a part of that,” she said.
As Peltola now turns her attention to her reelection bid against her opponents, Republicans former Gov. Sarah Palin, and businessman Nick Begich III, and Libertarian Chris Bye, she can point to her few days in office to show she didn’t fit neatly into either party’s platform.
“I’m here to help Alaskans with no regard for what either party or either platform is motivated by,” she said. “My only mission is to help Alaskans.”
Political consultant Matt Shuckerow, who previously worked for Young, Murkowski and Sullivan, said that’s something voters are watching closely.
The more Peltola “can kind of buck her own party and keep an independent streak, that’s important,” he said. “I think, regardless of politics, that’s what Alaskans want to see. And I think people are keeping their eyes on what’s going on.”
‘The Don Young agenda’
Young served as Alaska’s lone member in the House of Representatives for 49 years until he died in March at 88. Peltola grew up family friends with Young.
On Sept. 30, Peltola reintroduced eight bills that the former dean of the House had previously sponsored or worked on, including a bill to create grants to help rural veterans seek medical care and another to settle claims under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Peltola also selected Republican Alex Ortiz, Young’s former chief of staff, as her interim chief. Her interim director of scheduling and operations, Paula Conru, is another alumna of Young’s office. Her interim communications director, Josh Wilson, is a Republican, and her legislative assistant for Native affairs and rural issues, Sam Hiratsuka, comes from Sullivan’s office.
Former delegation staffers and Alaska political consultants say sticking with Young’s formula — Young was serving his 25th term in Congress before his death — could appeal to Alaska voters.
“A smart campaign move is when she confidently says, ‘Hey, I am going to finish up on the Don Young agenda,’” Alaska-based political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt said.
Peltola also made a goodwill gesture that former colleagues say is straight out of Young’s playbook. Peltola sent frozen wild Alaska salmon to Republican and Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill. Young’s former communication’s director Zack Brown said the move was “exactly what Congressman Young would do.”
Asked if she’s tried to pick up Young’s unfinished agenda, Peltola responded, “That’s certainly been my goal.”
Not everything has gone to plan, however. An unexpected natural disaster ended up occupying some of Peltola’s early days as a congresswoman.
During her first weekend in office, a Pacific typhoon devastated dozens of Western Alaska communities. Peltola and the rest of Alaska’s delegation advocated for federal funding for emergency response efforts, and Peltola toured damaged communities around Nome with Murkowski and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell.
In her first weeks, Peltola also advocated for reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters.
Fishery management issues are one of Peltola’s main priorities. Peltola is a former member of the Alaska House representing the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and the former director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. She has made fishery protections a centerpiece of her self-proclaimed “pro-fish” platform for reelection, though some Alaska fishing associations are opposed to reauthorizing Magnuson-Stevens.
Before his death, Young was working with California Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman to update Magnuson-Stevens for the first time in 16 years. When Young died, Huffman paused negotiations.
Talks resumed when Peltola took office and Democratic Party leadership assigned her a seat on the House Natural Resources Committee, which Young once chaired. The committee scheduled a bill markup meeting for her second week in office. Peltola joined the reauthorization bill as a co-sponsor with Huffman as the lead.
At the Sept. 21 committee meeting, Peltola offered an amendment to add two seats to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council designated for Alaska tribal members. The council manages fisheries off the coast of Alaska.
Young had been pushing for the added seats when he died, and before her campaign for office, Peltola testified before Natural Resources in 2021 about the seats’ importance.
Republicans like Rep. Cliff Bentz of Oregon objected, saying that the seats would skew the council too heavily in favor of Alaskans. Alaska currently controls six voting seats on the council, while Oregon controls one.
Peltola argued that many Alaska Natives with traditional knowledge are overlooked on the council. “The process has not been open to tribal members,” she said at the meeting. “We have not had reception, we have not had access to the process, and what we’re asking for now is a seat at the table.”
The bill passed through the committee Sept. 29 with Peltola’s amendment included, though Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization now faces an uncertain future. There may not be enough Republican support or time left in this term to bring it to a vote, according to Huffman.
Once a member of the minority in the Alaska House, Peltola said she felt she could breathe easy with Democrats in the majority on the Natural Resources Committee during the markup process.
“I had to keep reminding myself that the amendment process was going to be fine,” she said. “I didn’t have to convince people the same way I would have if I were in the minority.”
“I just smiled to myself about that,” she said.
Democrats currently control both chambers of Congress and the White House but face a competitive midterm season. The House is predicted to change leadership next term. Peltola said she has welcomed her time — short as it may be — in the majority party.
“I definitely see the benefit of being within a legislative majority,” Peltola said. “It frees up a lot more time and energy when you’re in the majority in terms of passing legislation.”
Though Peltola emphasizes her willingness to break with the party, Democratic Party leaders have embraced their new representative and are looking to keep Alaska’s lone House seat blue.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at an Alaska Federation of Natives reception Sept. 13 that Peltola’s swearing-in was a “glorious day.” In a statement announcing Peltola’s second committee assignment on Education and Labor, Pelosi called Peltola “a relentless advocate for all Alaskans in the halls of Congress.”
Peltola credited Democratic leadership in helping her advance her first bill through the House.
Her legislative team drafted the Food Security for All Veterans Act with help from the Democratic staff in the Veterans Affairs committee, according to her spokesman Wilson. Peltola introduced the bill Sept. 19 and it passed out of committee just days later.
The bill passed through the House on Sept. 29 in a 376-49 vote with broad Republican support. Peltola said party leadership, including Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., helped expedite her first bill’s passage in the House. The bill would establish an office of food security in the Department of Veteran Affairs.
“I’m very, very grateful for all of that support,” she said. “That certainly had everything to do with this quick passage.”