A Day of Firsts for Peltola in Congress Starts a Sprint to Another Election

  • Send any friend a story

    As a subscriber, you have “>10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.

    Give this article


A Day of Firsts for Peltola in Congress Starts a Sprint to Another Election | INFBusiness.com

Representative Mary Peltola, a Democrat, became the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress and the first woman to represent her state in the House.Credit

WASHINGTON — She picked up the new office keys and the special lapel pin that grants her unfettered access in the Capitol. In between meetings and interviews, she navigated coronavirus protocols to attend her first event at the White House.

And on Tuesday, Representative Mary Peltola, a Democrat, became the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress and the first woman to represent her state in the House, as she was sworn in to complete the term of Representative Don Young, a Republican who died in March after serving there for 49 years. Ms. Peltola, 49, who is Yup’ik, will now be the sole representative for the state’s 734,000 people at least through the end of the year.

She was sworn in by Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California alongside two newly minted members from New York, Representatives Pat Ryan, a Democrat, and Joe Sempolinski, a Republican, who won their respective special elections on Aug. 24. But Ms. Peltola’s historic credentials — coupled with her stunning victory that flipped the seat to Democratic control for the first time in nearly a half century — drew the most attention on Capitol Hill.

Her spokesman told a local radio station this week that Ms. Peltola was receiving more than 100 interview requests per day. She declined one from The New York Times.

“It is the honor of my life to represent Alaska, a place my elders and ancestors have called home for thousands of years,” Ms. Peltola said in her first floor speech. She added, “To be clear, I am here to represent all Alaskans.”

She will now have eight weeks to learn her way around the winding tunnels and meeting rooms of the Capitol complex, introduce herself to hundreds of new colleagues and launch constituent and legislative work before she faces voters again in the November general election, which will decide who will hold the seat in the next Congress.

That means a rematch with the same Republican rivals she defeated in the special election, former Governor Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III, whose grandfather was the last Democrat to hold the seat in the 1970s. Along with Christopher Bye, a libertarian, they were the top four candidates in a primary open to all candidates, regardless of party.

“It’s crazy — you know, she’s got to understand House process, the issues that are going to be in front of her, she’s got to campaign full time and she’s 4,000 miles away,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska. “She’s drinking out of a fire hose.”

A new election system in Alaska allows voters to rank their top three choices, which are tabulated until at least one candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote. In the special election last month, Mr. Begich and Ms. Palin split the conservative vote, and roughly 30 percent of Mr. Begich’s supporters ranked Ms. Peltola second, giving her a slight edge that allowed her to prevail over Ms. Palin.

In a primary for the general election that was held the same day, Ms. Peltola led the field with nearly 37 percent. To win in November, she would again need a majority of voters to rank her on their ballots, even if she was not their first choice.

On Instagram in September, Ms. Palin, who has sparred bitterly with Mr. Begich, shared text messages she had exchanged with Ms. Peltola, with whom she has a personal rapport, in which the former governor praised her competitor as a “real Alaskan chick! Beautiful & smart & tough.” (Ms. Palin, like Mr. Begich, would need Ms. Peltola’s supporters to rank her second in order to prevail in November.)

The House is scheduled to be in Washington for only 10 days before the elections, leaving Ms. Peltola little time to familiarize herself with the institution or the unfinished legislative work Mr. Young left behind before voters decide whether to grant her a full term. On Tuesday, Ms. Pelosi announced Ms. Peltola would sit on the House Committee on Natural Resources, which Mr. Young oversaw from 1995 to 2001.

In her first month of votes, she will consider a stopgap government funding legislation that may include a permitting reform deal that has rankled both liberals and conservatives. Under federal election law, she will also not be allowed to send out mass unsolicited mail to her constituents through her congressional office because it is less than two months before the general election.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Learn more about our process.

“She’s got to work that much harder to get the word out on everything she’s working on,” Zack Brown, a former aide to Mr. Young, said in an interview. He added, “She’s going to be under an extra-large microscope.”

Her spokesman said Ms. Peltola, since arriving in Washington on Saturday, had met with her new staff and was examining which bills she would pick up from Mr. Young. She has also hired Alex Ortiz, Mr. Young’s final chief of staff, to hold that position in her office, which garnered nods of approval from members of both parties.

Ms. Murkowski, who served with Ms. Peltola in the Alaska House, expressed relief that she and Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, would once again have a partner, and that Alaska would have a vote, in the House for the first time in six months.

“It’s hard when you don’t have your House counterpart, and so I’m really looking to have Mary jump in quickly,” Ms. Murkowski said.

Mr. Sullivan observed that “we need someone over there, right — we’ve got a small but mighty delegation, and there’s a lot of work to do.”

Ms. Peltola worked as a councilwoman in Bethel before serving in the Alaska House for a decade. She then became director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which led her to testify before Congress, raising concerns about dwindling salmon and crab populations and asking lawmakers to ensure that Indigenous people were equal partners in any changes to fish management.

At a 2021 hearing, Mr. Young recalled when Ms. Peltola’s parents brought her along as a 3-month-old baby when they showed up to work on his first campaign, adding, “I've always cherished that.”

Ms. Peltola’s name now hangs outside his old office in the stately Rayburn House Office Building, which once held an impressive array of taxidermy and memorabilia collected over Mr. Young’s years of service. All that is left now, Mr. Brown said, is a penciled list of names in the bathroom documenting who has used the office — including Mr. Young.

Ms. Peltola has vowed to carry on Mr. Young’s record of bipartisanship, sketching out plans to address food security and sustainability in her state under a campaign mantra of “fish, family and freedom.” While she has been open about her support for abortion rights and addressing climate change, she has also spoken about the importance of hunting and fishing for her family and community, and her openness to backing some drilling and mining.

She has also reflected on the need to increase funding for programs that support Alaska Natives and tribal governments, as the representative of a state where more than 15 percent of the population identifies as Indigenous.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, welcomed Ms. Peltola to the House, given that she is the lone lawmaker from her state, calling it a “rare privilege” to introduce her. Onlookers in the gallery and lawmakers on the House floor gave her a standing ovation as Mr. Hoyer acknowledged her historic role as the first Alaska Native in Congress.

Ms. Murkowski and Mr. Sullivan were present in the chamber to witness, for the first time, the swearing-in of a new House colleague. (“She doesn’t swear as much as Don did,” Ms. Murkowski could be heard saying, and was quick to embrace Ms. Peltola on the floor.)

With her family present — her husband, seven children, two grandchildren and two sisters — and supporters gathered for scheduled watch parties in Alaska and Washington on Tuesday, Ms. Peltola embraced Ms. Pelosi and other Democratic lawmakers. She waved to loved ones in the gallery, some of whom wore traditional attire, as they whistled, applauded and cheered after she took her oath.

And without a delegation to join the new representative, Ms. Pelosi encouraged the two Alaskan senators and Democrats from all states to flank Ms. Peltola as she addressed the House floor for the first time.

Source: nytimes.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *