The “Alaska model” was highlighted in both governance and garments as U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola on Friday returned to the Alaska State Capitol where she served for a decade to deliver her first congressional speech to a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature.
The first-year Democrat from Bethel talked about Alaska’s diverse population cooperating on complex issues serving as a role model for some observers in Washington, D.C. She also emphasized the discussions she’s had with leaders ranging from remote village council members to President Biden about the pending Willow oil field project on the North Slope, and aspects of D.C. political life such opting to meet Alaskans traveling across the country to see her in lieu of controversially unproductive committee hearings.
More than just the speech was colorful. Throughout the House chambers many of the legislators, members of Peltola’s family and staff, and dignitaries in the audience galleries were wearing loose Yup’ik kuspuks, in observance of a tradition the representative is credited with starting on Fridays at the Capitol soon after being elected to the Legislature.
Peltola, who served in the state House from 1999 to 2009, became Alaska’s first Democratic U.S. House member in about 50 years when she won a special election in August following the death of longtime Republican incumbent Don Young. She quickly gained fame for what was hailed as a positive bipartisan approach, and was reelected to a full two-year term in November.
The bipartisan tone remained the dominant theme of her 16-minute speech Friday — far shorter than the annual addresses typically given by Alaska’s two U.S. senators and the governor.
“I think people asked me about this ’Alaska model’ because they realize that business as usual in D.C. isn’t working anymore,” she said. “Slowly and surely, the partisan rancor from recent years is losing its appeal. People are remembering that politics first and foremost should be about fixing things and not just launching cable news careers or racking up retweets.”
Among the actions getting Alaska notice was the first-ever ranked choice elections in the state last year, which some observers credit for Peltola’s win in a state where Republican politicians have a solid majority. But she noted this year’s state Legislature has bipartisan majority coalitions in both the House and Senate.
“They’re talking about bipartisan governing coalitions in our Legislature, about the fact that we often ignore party lines to work together for Alaskans’ best interests. It’s strange, to hear that something we take for granted here at home is so foreign in the rest of the country. But it’s also inspiring because it gives me faith that for all the challenges Alaska faces, we’re doing something right – we’ve sparked the interest of Americans who are tired of a broken system in DC that too often highlights gimmicks over policy.”
She also gave a shoutout to the 17 first-year legislators, one of the highest numbers ever. Responding to a question from one of the freshmen members about advice to them, Peltola recounted observing former Alaska House Speaker Ben Grussendorf during the budget negotiations that occur at the end of every session.
“There were people who wanted, you know, revenge, in these end-of-session deals,” she recounted. “And he said, ‘No, no. Everybody has to save face.’ And I think that’s a real valuable lesson. It really stuck with me as a legislator.”
Revisiting state policy struggles
Nonetheless, Alaska’s politics can be a brutally cold as anywhere, and Peltola highlighted some of the struggles state lawmakers are currently seeking solutions for, including a critical net loss of workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. She said while Alaska’s congressional delegation is trying to help the state through actions such as the funding in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure act, state lawmakers have to be willing to take on many of the tough decisions themselves.
“Stemming the tide of outmigration also requires that we invest in ourselves,” she said. “In our education and in our workforce. This includes the workers who care for our elders in facilities across the state, and for our children. This includes the union workers who build our ice roads, fight our fires, care for us when we are ill and deliver our packages. And it includes our indispensable public employees: teachers, police officers and SNAP administrators — many of whom are not eligible for Social Security.”
That line earned applause from many of the legislators who have made reinstating fixed-amount pensions for state employees a top priority, arguing the lack of them is contributing to the workforce shortage. But during a news conference after the speech Peltola was asked about being one of the 21 votes in the state House (the minimum needed for passage) on a vote in 2006 that eliminated the defined benefits plan for employees — provided to 94% of state and local government employees nationally — replacing it with a 401k-style retirement where benefit amounts aren’t guaranteed.
Peltola said that vote came when the state was facing billions of dollars of “unfunded debt liability” from pensions — a new term at the time — and while the change didn’t entirely solve the debt “I think that if it hadn’t been addressed that way our unfunded debt liability would be a much bigger beast than it is now.” She also acknowledged “I don’t have significant advice” on how to revive defined benefits while also addressing other fiscal priorities of legislators during the current session.
Peltola, while joining the state’s two senators and most legislators in supporting the Willow oil field project, said she also agrees with President Biden’s expressed need for “gap oil” — which she said “is only gap oil if it helps serve as a bridge between our current needs and our future renewable capabilities.”
“Make no mistake, we must reckon with the impacts of fossil fuels,” she said. “Every year, Alaskans see our ice melting. We suffer through choking summer wildfires. We watch as our houses sink into thawing permafrost. We are on the front lines of this battle, and we must invest in a renewable future.
“In that future, we continue to lead in the energy sector as we cultivate our wealth of renewable energy resources. And in that future, Alaskans don’t pay three or five times more than our friends in the Lower 48 just to go to work, get our kids to school, or warm our homes.”
Tough questions about Willow support
While that was another line getting strong applause from legislators, Peltola also admitted a reluctant need to wade into the controversial politics involved in the Willow project — and faced almost immediate media and public blowback after doing so.
Peltola, as U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan did in his speech last week, urged the Legislature to approve a resolution endorsing the Willow project as currently recommended by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. An official record of decision about the project is due in a couple of weeks and some proponents are worried the Biden administration may reduce the size of the project to the point ConocoPhillips as the leaseholder opts not to proceed.
“We are close, but the president already knows where (U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski), Dan, and I stand — it’s you, and the constituents you represent, who can help sway him,” she said.
The representative, like Alaska’s senators, has asked for a direct meeting with Biden. She said she was told yesterday by the president’s legislative liaison “that meeting will be forthcoming,” and plans to appeal to him by noting the project will mean a large number of union jobs while fulfilling obligations to strategic partners in places such as Europe.
But while Sullivan argued the decision shouldn’t be political, Peltola acknowledged that’s hard to avoid.
“We are in politics,” she said. “We’re called politicians. Much as we work hard to not have them be political, it’s really hard to separate politics from politics.”
That degree of inseparation emerged when Peltola said during her news conference she planned to meet Friday with Gov. Mike Dunleavy about his proposals for Alaska to establish long-term fiscal stability by entering the carbon offset markets. She was shortly thereafter questioned about whether that was appropriate since her husband, Gene, is part of a new four-person company that last year approached the Dunleavy administration hoping to get a piece of that business (the governor quickly rejected an initial proposed agreement since it would have been an illegal sole-source contract).
“I’m not sure that’s the nature of the reason he wants to talk,” Peltola replied, referring to the governor. “I’m sure there will be sideboards and it is in no way related to my husband’s business.
“Yes, there are outlying voices of dissent,” she said. “There usually are when we’re talking about such projects.”
That prompted an accusatory Twitter response from Elstun Lauesen, a retired Anchorage project development coordinator, asking Peltola about reaching out to the Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, who as a leader of a village in close proximity to Willow and existing oil projects has expressed strong objections about adverse environmental impacts in the community and to tradition activities such as subsistence hunting.
Peltola said she has indeed “spent quite a bit of time visiting” with Ahtuangaruak and had “a very respectful conversation.”
“I have tremendous respect for her and the work she’s doing,” the congresswoman said.
However, Peltola she’s also met with other local leaders in the community, including the chair of its village corporation, as well as many others in the region and support for the Willow project is dominant among them.
Peltola’s speech ended a 30-year gap since Alaska’s lone member of the U.S. House formally addressed the Legislature. She said during her news conference it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up as a first-year member of Congress since “people are still getting to know me, so I did think it would be fruitful.”
But she also emphasized Young made regular visits to the state Capitol during her time in the Legislature, meeting with caucuses, individual lawmakers and staff.
“We found those actions very meaningful,” she said. “We did that yesterday. We did have very good conversations person-to-person and I feel like that really is the best way to communicate.”
Additional meetings took place Friday, including the discussion with Dunleavy about Willow.
Peltola also got quick attention after winning the special election last year by reintroducing Young’s pending legislation, although it failed to advance through the Democrat-controlled Congress. She has not reintroduced the bills — or any of her own legislation – during the current Congress in which Republicans control the House, which she said to some extent reflects political differences between her temporary and regular terms in office.
“Its not to say we won’t introduce some of those down the line, but I took very seriously that I had been elected in the special election to backfill the remainder of Congressman Young’s term,” she said. “I took that to heart and I wanted to make sure that I honored his legacy during the remainder of his term.
“Now…I am here in my own terms and I am representing Alaska, not filling out my predecessor’s term. I’m here to fulfil my two-year obligation. I really think it’s important that I establish my autonomy and my own identity with Alaskans.”
The most unmistakable show of Peltola’s influence during her appearance were the loose cotton-hooded jackets with prominent front pockets worn by many lawmakers that an outsider might think were part of “casual Friday,” but in fact were a much more significant and cultural occurrence.
Peltola said she didn’t rush to take credit for starting “kuspuk Fridays” since, among other things, the traditional Yup’ik garments have existed for many generations. She said she, a cousin and a mailroom employee wore them on Fridays (wanting “to project the image of being a professional” on other days), and when her cousin passed away “we had kind of a tribute day and I think it kind of grew from that.”
Over time she’s grown warmer to the idea of it being part of her legacy.
“It’s easy to change a regulation, change an ordinance or change a law compared to changing a culture,” she said. In addition, “I’ve heard stories of people who were scared and terrified to be here, and then felt a lot more comfortable when they saw that everyone had their kuspuks on. So I’m thrilled that the tradition continues and to have been a part of it.”
When asked if she deliberately gave her speech on a Friday because of the now-tradition, Peltola said it didn’t start out as intentional timing, but a fellow legislator she used to serve with encouraged it.
“I actually didn’t think that was a possibility because often at this time of the year people go home on Fridays, so I thought it was very nice that it worked out this way,” she said.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com