WASHINGTON — During her first weeks in office, U.S. Representative from Alaska Mary Sattler Peltola toed a cautious line.
She’s a Democrat who says she wants to pick up elements of her Republican predecessor’s unfinished agenda and says she’s willing to break the party line in the interests of Alaskans — efforts that political observers say , will help him in his re-election campaign. Yet she also reaped the rewards of being a member of the majority party.
Peltola replaced the late Rep. Don Young after a special election in August and was sworn in Sept. 13 to become the first Alaskan in Congress. Between his 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.
At that time, she challenged the clear characterization of the party, especially on resource development. She said she was “pro-developmentcandidate, and her early days in Congress tested exactly what she meant.
Peltola joined Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan in a September 20 letter calling on the Department of the Interior to quickly approve willow oil project so that construction can begin this winter. Although President Joe Biden has reported supportthe ConocoPhillips North Slope project has drawn opposition from conservation groups, some groups and several of Peltola’s peers in the Democratic Party, such as Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. During Peltola first week in office, she listed Willow among her top priorities and said approval of the project would be “a big win for Alaska.”
But earlier, Murkowski and Sullivan sent a September 15 letter urging the Home Office to approve a 200-mile access road in the northwest Alaska to the so-called Ambler Mining District – without Peltola’s signature. The Ambler route is controversial. Proponents say the road is key to reaching critical minerals and creating jobs, but conservation groups and some tribes in the area fear the project could threaten the environment and livelihood resources.
In a Sept. 30 interview, Peltola said she would be open to Ambler Road and planned to send her own letter. However, she did not sign the senators’ letter because it did not mention her hope that the road would 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.
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As Peltola now turns her attention to her re-election bid against her opponents, former Republican Governor Sarah Palin, businessman Nick Begich III and libertarian Chris Bye, she can highlight her few days in office to show that it didn’t fit neatly into either party’s platform.
“I’m here to help Alaskans regardless of what drives either party or either platform,” she said. “My only mission is to help Alaskans.”
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Political consultant Matt Shuckerow, who previously worked for Young, Murkowski and Sullivan, said it was something voters were watching closely.
Plus Peltola “can sort of counter his own party and keep an independent streak, that’s important,” he said. “I think whatever the politics, that’s what Alaskans want to see. And I think people are keeping their eyes on what’s going on.
“Don Young’s Diary”
Young served as Alaska’s only member of the House of Representatives for 49 years until his death in March at age 88. Peltola grew up with friends from the Young family.
On Sept. 30, Peltola reintroduced eight bills the former House Dean had previously sponsored or worked on, including one invoice create grants to help rural veterans get medical care and another one to settle claims under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Peltola also chose Republican Alex Ortiz, Young’s former chief of staff, as acting leader. His acting director of planning and operations, Paula Conru, is another alumnus of Young’s office. Its acting communications director, Josh Wilson, is a Republican, and its legislative assistant for Indigenous affairs and rural issues, Sam Hiratsuka, comes from Sullivan’s office.
Former delegation staffers and Alaska political consultants say sticking to Young’s formula — Young was serving his 25th term in Congress before his death — might appeal to Alaskan voters.
“A smart campaign move is when she confidently says, ‘Hey, I’m going to end up on Don Young’s agenda,'” said Alaska-based political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt.
Peltola also made a gesture of goodwill that former colleagues say came straight out of Young’s playbook. Peltola sent frozen wild Alaskan salmon to fellow Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. Young’s former communications director, Zack Brown, said the move was “exactly what Congressman Young would do.”
Ask if she tried to picking up Young’s unfinished agenda, Peltola replied, “That’s definitely my goal.”
However, not everything went as planned. An unexpected natural disaster ended up occupying some of Peltola’s early days as a congressman.
During its first weekend in power, a Pacific typhoon devastated dozens of communities in western Alaska. Peltola and the rest of the Alaska delegation advocated for federal funding for emergency response efforts, and Peltola visited damaged communities around Nome with Murkowski and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell.
During her first few weeks, Peltola also advocated for the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs the management of marine fisheries in US federal waters.
Fisheries management issues are one of Peltola’s main problems. priorities. Peltola is a former member of the Alaska House representing the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and former director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. She has made fishing protections a centerpiece of her self-proclaimed “pro-fish” platform for re-election, though some Alaska fishing associations are opposed to reauthorization Magnuson-Stevens.
Prior to his death, Young was working with California Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman to update Magnuson-Stevens for the first time in 16 years. Upon Young’s death, Huffman broke off negotiations.
Talks resumed when Peltola took office and the Democratic Party leadership gave him a seat on the House Natural Resources Committee, which Young once chaired. The committee has scheduled a bill scoping meeting for its second week in office. Peltola joined the reauthorization bill as a co-sponsor with Huffman in the lead.
At the September 21 committee meeting, Peltola proposed an amendment to add two seats on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council designated for Alaska tribal members. The council manages the fishery off the coast of Alaska.
Young had lobbied for the extra seats when he died, and ahead of his election campaign, Peltola testified before Natural Resources in 2021 about the importance of the seats.
Republicans like Rep. Cliff Bentz of Oregon objected, saying the seats would skew the council too much 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 was not open to tribal members,” she told the meeting. “We haven’t had a reception, we haven’t had access to the process, and what we’re asking for now is a seat at the table.”
The bill passed the committee on September 29 with Peltola’s amendment included, although reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens now faces an uncertain future. According to Huffman, there may not be enough Republican support or time left in this term to bring it to a vote.
Formerly a member of the Alaska House Minority, Peltola said she felt she could breathe easy with majority Democrats on the natural resources committee during the scoping process.
“I had to remind myself that the amendment process was going to be okay,” she said. “I didn’t have to convince people like I would have if I was in the minority.”
“I just smiled at myself about it,” she said.
Democrats currently control both houses of Congress and the White House, but face a competitive midterm season. The house is predicted at change direction next term. Peltola said she welcomed her time – however short – in the majority party.
“I really see the benefit of being in a legislative majority,” Peltola said. “It frees up a lot more time and energy when you’re in the majority in terms of passing laws.”
Although Peltola insists on breaking away from the party, Democratic Party leaders have embraced their new representative and are seeking to keep Alaska’s only blue seat.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a Federation of Alaska Natives reception Sept. 13 that Peltola’s swearing-in was a “glorious day.” In a statement announcing Peltola’s second education and labor mission, Pelosi called Peltola a “relentless advocate for all Alaskans in the halls of Congress.”
Peltola credited Democratic leadership with helping her push her first bill through the House.
His legislative team drafted the Food Security for All Veterans Act with the help of Democratic veterans committee staff, according to his spokesperson Wilson. Peltola introduced the bill on September 19 and walked out of committee a few days later.
The bill passed the House on September 29 in a 376-49 vote with broad Republican support. Peltola said party leadership, including Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-California, helped expedite the passage of his first bill through the House. The bill would create an office of food security within the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I’m very, very grateful for all this support,” she said. “It certainly had everything to do with that quick pass.”
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