A year after her rise from obscurity to global political celebrity as the first Alaska Native elected to Congress, Mary Peltola has again been keeping a low profile in recent weeks.
Peltola, 50, skipped public events during a three-day visit to Juneau earlier this month, instead spending much of the time visiting her 17-year-old son — one of seven children in her family — who attends Yaakoosgé Daakahídi High School. She departed on a Friday afternoon for her hometown of Bethel, to help store some family boats with harsh fall weather approaching.
Then four days later, after she returned to Washington, D.C., aboard Air Force One with President Biden following a Sept. 11 ceremony in Anchorage, her husband Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr. was involved in a fatal crash as the lone pilot of a small plane in a remote part of western Alaska. He died early the next morning, Sept. 13, with the congresswoman immediately returning home and her office issuing statements asking people to respect the family’s privacy.
Days earlier, during an interview at the Empire’s office discussing her first year in Congress, Peltola discussed how she was adapting with her husband to spending much of their time in the nation’s capital rather than the remote hometown where they spent so many years, noting “I’ve got an apartment now, (and) I’ve got clothes and a freezer full of food.”
“My husband and I were so elated when we found the Safeway,” she said when asked if she had any regular stores, restaurants or other favored establishments yet. “It’s a few blocks away from our house. And before that I had been going to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and we felt like we were in a foreign country. Because like I don’t even recognize the brands that Trader Joe’s has it really feels like a foreign country when you’re shopping there. A favorite restaurant I like is the Thai place right next to the (National Republican Club of Capitol Hill). Coincidentally, it’s really close to my office.”
A week after her husband’s death, statements resumed on Peltola’s social media pages and her congressional press office on matters ranging from national standards for fisheries management to free health care coverage available for post-9/11 combat veterans. She’s also having to refocus on one of the biggest national battles since her arrival in Congress, as a budget stalemate fueled largely by Republicans in the House majority is threatening a shutdown of the federal government at the end of the month.
Peltola, after joining Biden for the Sept. 11 event at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, stated in a press release she discussed issues such as “Alaska’s role in Pacific Rim strategy and energy markets” with the president during the flight on Air Force One afterward. But despite that show of unity, she is also at odds with the administration on some such issues, including Biden canceling remaining oil leases in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
Furthermore, as the first Democrat elected to Alaska’s lone House seat in 50 years, her seat is among the most targeted by the Republican National Committee as she seeks a second full term. Opponents are alreasy attacking her voting record, alliances with other politicians and relatively high absentee rate for floor votes.
In her favor is she remains the most popular statewide politician in Alaska, according to a tracking survey showing her approval rating has changed little during the past year.
Local-level family time and politics
Peltola — who staged a handful of public appearances while running for Congress in a special election last summer and then in the general election last fall — made no such appearances during her trip to Juneau earlier this month. Instead she spent the evening of her arrival at a private fundraiser with a who’s-who of local politicos that featured other three members of the U.S. House from California and Michigan, and other portions of the visit meeting privately with local leaders and activists when not spending time with her son.
“Out of all my kids he’s the one I ended up spending the least amount of time with because he lives in Juneau,” Peltola said.
She said her private meetings included people such as longtime fisheries development manager Larry Cotter, Salmon State campaign strategist Lindsey Bloom, and Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson.
Peltola’s interview with the Empire took place a couple of hours after the state announced it has filed a legal challenge to the Biden administration’s revival of the so-called Roadless Rule that bans logging and road-building on more than nine million acres in the Tongass National Forest.
It is among a multitude of issues involving legal disputes between the state and federal (and sometimes tribal) governments such as jurisdiction over areas such as Mendenhall Lake, fisheries management, and whether Tlingit and Haida can claim “Indian Country” rights on a parcel of its land.
Peltola, whose voting record is almost exactly at the midpoint of the liberal/conservative split among U.S. House members, according to Voteview — takes a split position on the various disputes between the state and other entities.
She disagrees with Biden’s canceling the ANWR leases and reinstating the Roadless Rule, arguing in the latter case local communities should determine how to use and protect their land. But she’s also pushing a “landless tribes” bill addressing issues related to Tlingit and Haida’s dispute with the state, and she’s at odds with the state’s recent decision to ban transgender girls from girls’ high school sports.
The Tlingit and Haida dispute with the state involves a small lot in downtown Juneau the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs agreed to take into federal trust earlier this year, thus giving the tribal government rather than the state jurisdiction over the land. Peterson said the approval means “Tlingit and Haida will no longer be a landless tribe,” and a significant step toward getting such status for additional parcels of the tribe’s land, as well as a hopeful indicator for the issue regionwide.
The state, in its lawsuit, claims the federal government abused its authority and discretion in approving the tribe’s application for the land parcel.
Peltola, when asked about the lawsuit given her sponsorship of the “landless tribe” bill on behalf of five Southeast Alaska communities, initially said she needed “to stay in my lane” since it’s outside the scope of her official responsibilities. But she gave a more definitive answer shortly thereafter when asked about the broader issue of various legal challenges being filed by the state.
“I think it would be in Alaska’s best interest if the state would reduce their number of lawsuits against their own citizens,” she said. “The state of Alaska sues the tribes of Alaska more than all the other states combined. And this is not good for Alaska moving forward and finding solutions to our everyday problems.”
The “landless tribes” bill — introduced repeatedly over the years by other members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, including current Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, allows the Alaska Native communities of Haines, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Tenakee to form urban corporations and receive land entitlements under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), since they were not among those included when the act became law in 1971.
Peltola, noting she’s continuing to sponsor the bill pushed by her longtime predecessor Don Young, a Republican who died last year, called the bill “an old kind of legacy issue that needs to be addressed.”
“I’m going to push it and I will continue pushing it until it’s resolved,” Peltola said.
Shutdown showdowns with the federal budget and state fisheries
Peltola, looking at broader needs for the region, said she has a list of target budget earmarks finalized from a multitude of requests, but her primary concern goes the broader issue of whether a budget will even pass.
“Well, no promises like right up until the end. It’s it’s a negotiation to the end,” she said about the earmarks. However “I have concerns about a federal shutdown being eminent because senior members, colleagues of mine with a lot of experience have said we are on track for a federal shutdown.”
One particular large-scale budget item specific to Juneau is the proposed purchase of a private icebreaker for the U.S. Coast Guard that would sail in the Arctic, but be home ported in the capital city. Peltola said she, along with Alaska’s two senators, supports that project.
I’d like to see a much larger budget for the Coast Guard,” she said. “So they have (financial) space if they need to focus more on housing, or childcare, or equipment for them to have the ability to make those things happen. But we do want an icebreaker — and we need 20. We’re very behind Russia. So one at least.”
The congresswoman, like many Alaska Democrats, also expresses strong support for oil projects that are adamantly opposed by environmental interests and many in her party nationally. When asked to name her biggest accomplishment during her first year, she cited the Biden administration’s approval of the Willow oil field project on the North Slope despite heavy objection from environmental groups.
“Getting Willow through was the big deal, meeting with the president in the Oval Office with our senators and knowing I had a big role to play in making that meeting happen,” she said. “And because of the senators, and decades of work, the three of us were able to make very compelling arguments. And that has real economic impacts to our state and households across Alaska.”
A contentious reelection campaign
Such achievements — and her being at odds with Biden on some other issues — aren’t keeping Peltola from being associated with the president and other “economic terrorists” in his administration by a Republican opponent seeking a rematch against her in the 2024 election.
There are certain to be many much such accusations — and other possible opponents — as Peltola prepares for her first full-term reelection campaign. In addition to sophomore campaigns generally being considered the most challenging for an incumbent, due to reasons such as an established voting record and lacking the advantages of long-term incumbency, she is among the Democratic-held seats national Republican leaders consider the most opportune to win.
“This next election is going to be the hardest,” Peltola acknowledged. “I was really underestimated in the special election. And it’s not going to be that way. Now they definitely want my head on a platter.”
In addition to how she votes, Republicans are also targeting the frequency of her votes since her 86% attendance rate on floor votes is well below the Democratic party average of 98% (and overall average of 99%). Peltola, reiterating a point she made during the initial weeks of her first full term after Republicans took over the majority, said many of the votes now taken are now done with future political attacks in mind.
“Every single bill is booby-trapped,” she said. “I mean, even the (National Defense Authorization Act) which has not ever been a political bill, everyone was (previously) able to vote yes on that. This year they put in like five poison pills. And I couldn’t even vote yes for true (military) pay raises without nefarious things attached to it. And every single bill is like that.”
Opposing her reelection so far is Nick Begich III, who finished third in last year’s special and general elections, behind former Republican Gov. Sarah Palin. While the two Republicans split the anti-Peltola vote, the state’s then-new ranked choice voting system also benefited Peltola as many voters who made a Republican their first choice opted not to ranked the other Republican second during what was a largely negative campaign between them.
Palin has been mentioned as another possible challenger to Peltola in 2024, as has Kelly Tshibaka, who lost the 2022 U.S. Senate race to Murkowski. Both Palin and Tshibaka have been involved in high-profile efforts to repeal the state’s ranked choice voting system either before or during the 2024 general election.
A tracking poll by Ivan Moore Research shows Peltola — who had a 52% approval, 27% disapproval rating in October of 2022 after winning the special election, had a 54-30 rating in July of 2023.
“Holding pretty steady,” he wrote in a message on X, formerly known as Twitter, when publishing the July results. “It’s always tough when the actual work of legislating begins…sometimes the honeymoon numbers don’t last long. Positive in the mid 50’s ain’t bad though, certainly better than every other Alaska politician.”