U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat who became the first Alaska Native in Congress a year ago, discusses issues and adjusting to the national political scene on Sept. 8 as part of a three-day visit to Juneau. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat who became the first Alaska Native in Congress a year ago, discusses issues and adjusting to the national political scene on Sept. 8 as part of a three-day visit to Juneau. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A year after surprising victory, Peltola a popular target in Congress

Spending 9/11 with Biden, being top target of GOP now part of job while dealing with family matters.

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.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, administers the House oath of office to Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, standing next to her husband Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr., center, during a ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. Peltola’s husband Eugene died in an airplane crash in Western Alaska on Sept. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, administers the House oath of office to Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, standing next to her husband Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr., center, during a ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. Peltola’s husband Eugene died in an airplane crash in Western Alaska on Sept. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

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.

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola (right), D-Alaska, meets with Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, along with other tribal officials, on Sept. 8 during a visit to Juneau. (Photo courtesy of Tlingit and Haida)

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola (right), D-Alaska, meets with Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, along with other tribal officials, on Sept. 8 during a visit to Juneau. (Photo courtesy of Tlingit and Haida)

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.

The congresswoman’s expressed dislike of the state’s frequent litigation was repeated when asked about the challenge to the Roadless Rule, even though she essentially sides with the state’s position that the rule economically harms affected communities.

“Again, this litigious way of getting to resolution doesn’t often result in real resolution, it would just be so much better if we could work in a collaborative way,” she said. “So much of the Tongass roadless initiative was about not spending federal dollars on these roads and projects. If Alaska is committed to them then Alaska should pony up and pay for them. And we see so often where the state is shirking its responsibilities and not putting the resources it needs to put into things like roads for transmission lines to renewable projects.”

Related to that, Peltola said, is concerns about the state’s permitting process.

“To permit a renewable project takes as long as a petroleum project,” she said. “The average time in the Lower 48 is five years and the average time in Alaska is 10 years to permit things. If we are going to be serious about climate change and staying within that 1% or 2% Fahrenheit goal, then we have to get serious about permitting renewable projects and we have to get serious about making that process much more streamlined.”

Another area where permitting and government bureaucracy can take longer than desired — involving assistance to those affected by last month’s record flooding of Suicide Basin that destroyed or damaged dozens of homes — is an area Peltola is well familiar with. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency visited recently to assess if the incident merits federal disaster relief — a process Peltola was involved with extensively last fall when Typhoon Merbok devastated her hometown and much of the rest of Alaska’s west coast.

“We back up the state’s request for a disaster declaration and then we try to impress upon FEMA why we may get things that other people in other states don’t declare in their disaster reimbursement or when they’re applying for disaster relief,” she said, referring specifically to the state’s recent such request for Juneau.

The FEMA process can be lengthy and complex, since there are still unresolved cases and unfilled promises from the agency following Typhoon Merbok, Peltola said. But while Juneau’s flooding was smaller in scale, she said the community may avoid some of the problems affecting typhoon victims.

“I think it’ll be easier for Juneau because Juneau is more urban, and you’re not going to have people declaring beluga nets and things like that,” she said.

But Peltola emphasized a need to “fine-tune the disaster process” so the state is making requests and the federal government is providing aid promptly “because we’re only going to see more of these as time goes on.

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.”

An increased Coast Guard presence in the Arctic is being widely sought by the military and policymakers, due to competition for commercial activities such as oil drilling and shipping, which has led to territorial disputes and national security concerns. Russia and China have both engaged in what U.S. officials call provocative incidents involving military activities, and official assessments support Peltola’s statement Russia has superior Arctic capabilities.

The disputes in the Arctic are largely tied to the area becoming more accessible as climate change has significantly shrunk the polar ice sheet. Peltola cites that as causing other major problems in the Arctic and to the south, including extreme storms such as Typhoon Merbok and severe depletion of fisheries populations.

Earlier this month in Southeast Alaska, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the commercial red and blue king crab fishery for the 2023-2024 season, the sixth year in a row, citing stock survey numbers that remain well below the regulatory threshold.

“Disaster money for fisheries takes a very long time, it takes multiple years for that money,” she said. “And it can only be applied to commercial users. It does not make them whole. And by the time it’s received, it’s you know, they’ve had three seasons or whatever, probably, in addition, so disaster funding is not ultimately the solution. It’s a piece right now, a band-aid.”

Peltola said Alaska had robust research into fisheries years ago, which is critical to revive for effective management to happen.

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 chart shows U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola’s voting ideology, attendance and party loyalty as a Democrat for the current session of Congress. (Data from Voteview)

A chart shows U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola’s voting ideology, attendance and party loyalty as a Democrat for the current session of Congress. (Data from Voteview)

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.”

Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, acknowledges audience members singing a song of prayer for her at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage on Oct. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, acknowledges audience members singing a song of prayer for her at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage on Oct. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

A year in D.C.

Peltola, near the end of her Empire interview, said she was likely to cut her Juneau trip a bit short to return home to Bethel that afternoon.

“I may have to go pull the boats out of the water in Bethel,” she said, noting her family owns a couple of them there. “It’s been stormy and rainy, and everybody’s moose hunting. And the folks we have in Bethel aren’t all at the physical capacity that they can go put a boat on a trailer anymore.”

Such experiences are reminders of how much life has changed for her during the past year.

“I’ll just say when I’m in Alaska, like this last these last five weeks, it doesn’t feel like work,” she said. “In D.C. it’s definitely all work. And it’s long days. Usually they’re about 14-hour days. And even if you’re wearing flat shoes, like loafers, or Oxfords, your feet hurt. The only thing that helped me make sure my feet aren’t completely aching is tennis shoes because you’re on concrete and marble all day.”

Peltola said being at the U.S. Capitol has gotten to the point where “every day isn’t a shock and a surprise,” but “when I walk on the floor there is a sense of awe.”

“Almost every day I’m pinching myself over some scenario I could never have predicted would happen to me in my life,” she said.

Among the memorable experiences, Peltola said, is when she was asked to give a prayer in her mother’s Native language during a dinner in the National Statuary Hall.

”That was kind of an overwhelming experience for me, that they asked me to do that in Statuary Hall where Congress used to convene,” she said. “That and, after many decades of intentional erasure, to then be able to serve all Alaskans, not just one group of people. That’s such an honor.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, addresses soldiers during a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony Monday at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, before President Joe Biden’s speech marking the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attacks. (Official photo from Rep. Mary Peltola’s office)

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, addresses soldiers during a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony Monday at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, before President Joe Biden’s speech marking the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attacks. (Official photo from Rep. Mary Peltola’s office)

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