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Mary Peltola
Mary Peltola celebrates her election victory in Alaska on August 31, 2022. Photo: Mary Peltola for Congress
‘It is a GOOD DAY’
Alaska Native woman makes history at the polls
Thursday, September 1, 2022

Mary Peltola is making history as the first Alaska Native person to serve in the U.S. Congress following a special — and unique — election in which the Democratic candidate defeated two Republicans.

But Peltola, who is Yup’ik, will only walk the halls of Capitol Hill for a short time, essentially about three months. She was elected by voters to serve out the remaining of the late Don Young, a longtime champion of Native issues who died on March 18 at the age of 88.

Still, Peltola’s victory at the polls marks a significant achievement. Not only is she first Alaska Native woman in the U.S. House of Representatives, she is the first Democrat to win a Congressional election in the state in 14 years.

“It is a GOOD DAY,” Peltola wrote on social media on Wednesday night, following confirmation of her win in which she secured nearly 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

“Thank you to all Alaskans who have put their faith in me as the first woman in Alaska’s history to represent our state in the House of Representatives,” Peltola continued in another post.

“Tonight, we’ve shown that we can win as a campaign that is pro-choice, pro-fish, pro-worker, and pro-Alaska,” she said, underscoring her broad appeal in a state that has otherwise leaned heavily Republican for almost two decades.

Peltola, who has served in the Alaska Legislature for 10 years, defeated Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich in the special election, which was the first time in which voters were able to rank their choices. According to the unofficial results, she won more than 74,800 votes, well ahead of her rivals.

With her emphasis on Alaska’s unique issues, Peltola in fact built on the strong showing that had propelled her to the top of the candidate list during the primary in June. Native leaders and organizers have been energized throughout the election season, encouraging turnout among the 14.8 percent of the state’s population who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.

“We’re seeing more names and more faces that are more relatable,” Michelle Sparck, the director of Strategic Initiatives for Get Out The Native Vote, a non-partisan organization affiliated with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, said in discussing the new ranked choice system in Alaska.

Despite the engagement, advocates argue that Native people still face difficulties at the polls. The Native American Rights Fund is representing the Arctic Village Council as part of a new lawsuit that alleges the state disenfranchised more than 5,000 voters — with a significant number of so-called ballot rejections based in rural areas where Native people live.

“Every vote counts and the state could take lead from any of the other many states that have already put in place measures to fix curable issues instead of rejecting votes,” NARF Staff Attorney Megan Condon said in a news release about the lawsuit. “Without changes to the current system, the state can continue to reject a great number of votes cast by Alaska Natives and rural voters.”

Along with other advocacy groups, NARF is asking a judge to require the state to address the issues before the general election in November. The date is critical — that’s when voters will go to the polls all over again to choose someone to serve out a full two-year term as Alaska’s sole member of the House of Representatives.

But for now, Peltola is basking in her historic victory. President Joe Biden called her on Wednesday night, the White House said in a statement.

“The President congratulated her for her historic victory in the Alaska special election Wednesday,” the White House said in the statement on Thursday morning. “The two had a very warm conversation where he told her he looks forward to working with her to lower costs for working families in Alaska when she is sworn into her seat in Congress.”

“He also wished her a very happy birthday,” the White House added, noting that August 31 marked another milestone in Peltola’s life of public service in Alaska.

Peltola has represented the Bethel region in the Alaska House of Representatives for 10 years. She was raised in the district — in Native villages and communities along on the Kuskokwim River.

Peltola’s upbringing contributed to one of the major planks in her platform: supporting fishing in Alaska. She began fishing commercially with her father at the age of six, worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game while in college and later served as executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, where she helped protect salmon runs on behalf 118 tribes in her homelands.

An post-victory social media post highlights her natural resources stance, reading: “Pro-Fish policies win elections.” It was accompanied by a fish emoji.

Peltola, whose Yup’ik name is Akalleq, is married to Eugene “Gene” R. Peltola, Jr. Her spouse recently retired as director for the Alaska region of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a position he assumed during the administration of Republican former president Donald Trump. Gene, who is known as “Buzzy” in Native circles, is Yup’ik and Tlingit.

In serving out the remaining months of the term of Don Young, whose late first wife was Native, Peltola will join two Republicans in the nation’s capital: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the vice chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), whose wife is Native. She will be part of the Alaska Congressional delegation for the remainder of the 117th Congress, which is expected to conclude at the end of December.

“I congratulate Mary Peltola on her victory in the special election to represent Alaskans in the House of Representatives for the remainder of the late Congressman Young’s term,” Murkowski said in a statement on Wednesday night. “Mary made history today; not just state history, but national history, as the first Alaska Native woman elected to Congress.”

“While it will be impossible for Alaska to replace Congressman Young, Mary has a long track record of public service to our great state — including our time working together in the Alaska State Legislature — and I look forward to having her join Senator Sullivan and I as we advance Alaska’s priorities over the coming months,” Murkowski added.

Before his passing, Young was an active and longtime member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, the legislative panel with jurisdiction over Indian issues. He was part of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, where he helped ensure bills benefiting Alaska Natives got passed and signed into law.

“He believed in getting stuff done,” Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-New Mexico), the chair of the subcommittee, said during a session that turned into a lengthy tribute to Young on April 6.

As a Democrat, Peltola is joining her party’s majority in the House of Representatives. The Democratic caucus in the chamber includes Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Rep. Kai Kahele (D-Hawaii), who is Native Hawaiian.

The Republican side includes Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-New Mexico), also Cherokee. At least for the remaining months of the 117th Congress, six Native people will be serving in Congress — a record number.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, the makeup will be shifting in the House becuase Mullin is vacating his seat because he is now running for U.S. Senate. He secured the Republican nomination and will be on the ballot in Oklahoma in November. If he wins, he will serve out the remaining four years of the term of Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who is retiring.

As for the general in Alaska, Peltola in November will once again face Sarah Palin, a former Republican nominee for vice president whose former husband is Alaska Native. Palin had been endorsed by Donald Trump, whose political future remains clouded by legal controversies tied to his one-term presidency.

Also running is Nick Begich III, a Republican whose grandfather once held Alaska’s sole seat in the House of Representatives. His family includes Mark Begich, a Democrat who served one term in the Senate. Mark was the last Democrat to win a statewide Congressional election in Alaska, back in 2008.

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