U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola addresses supporters during a campaign meet-and-greet Saturday night at the Crystal Saloon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola addresses supporters during a campaign meet-and-greet Saturday night at the Crystal Saloon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Peltola gets early exposure to pluses, perils of reelection campaign during week with stop in Juneau

Large crowds enthusiastic at first 2024 events, but people challenging her on Gaza cause disruptions

This story has been updated with additional information.

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola got an early lesson in how campaigning as an incumbent for a second full term is different than as a relatively unknown outsider, as a campaign stop Saturday in Juneau to meet a large and enthusiastic crowd was preceded by an awkward social media “moment” where she was asked to denounce the “genocide” occurring in Palestine.

The incident occurred one night after protesters disrupted an event in Anchorage on the same subject — and, like the protest, was planned in advance by an advocacy group.

During the event itself supporters packed into the upper floor of the Crystal Saloon early Saturday evening to hear Peltola speak, pick up campaign materials, and stand in a long line to get a photo and exchange a few words with the Bethel Democrat who is the first Alaska Native elected to Congress.

As in her first campaign two years ago, she is invoking the same upbeat tone and generally the same issues — with a slogan of “fish, families, freedom for the future” — despite being increasingly targeted by negative attacks from political opponents.

“I use the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ because that’s how I think. We’re all in this together, we’re all related, we’re all on the same team. Polling shows that I need to say ‘I’ more often — and I have made big wins,” she said, getting laughter and applause from the crowd.

“Of course, nobody does anything alone or by themselves,” she added. “But I also want to speak to the power of one person. We see this over and over in every community in Alaska, the power of one person’s initiative, the power of one person’s inspiration and one person’s ability to get people together on the same page.”

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola talks with Fu Bao Hartle, a participant in and spokesperson for in local Special Olympics events, during a campaign meet-and-greet Saturday evening at the Crystal Saloon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola talks with Fu Bao Hartle, a participant in and spokesperson for in local Special Olympics events, during a campaign meet-and-greet Saturday evening at the Crystal Saloon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Such an approach is one of the reasons Cindy Spanyers, a longtime state employees union activist who is now retired, said she is supporting Peltola even though the congresswoman’s stance on many major issues such as oil exploration and restrictions on foreign seafood entities is similar to that of other seekers of statewide office in Alaska.

“I think that tone is civilized and agreeable,” Spanyers said. “And I think that’s really important.”

Peltola’s involvement with the “fish” part of her platform is why Jonny Antoni, a longtime commercial fisherman who moved to Juneau a few years ago, said he showed up at his first-ever political meet-and-greet.

“I think that Mary Peltola is in an interesting position as an independent to not necessarily ride the party line and to make decisions for herself that are in the best interests of Alaskans, not necessarily the parties,” he said after the event, noting he also spoke to her briefly about mariculture opportunities in the region because of a kelp farm he is involved with.

But Saturday’s event began controversially as Naawéiyaa Tagaban, a Juneau artist, concluded a spoken acknowledgment of being on Native land — a now-standard opening at many local public events — by calling for Peltola to denounce the “genocide” occurring in Palestine. He referred to past colonialism against Natives throughout Southeast Alaska and “the Holocaust that happened on European land,” asserting the same is now happening in the dispute that erupted in Gaza last October.

Peltola had not yet arrived in the room, but her communications manager, Shannon Mason, stepped in at that point to make Tagaban give up the microphone.

“We’re not going to do this,” she told him. “I asked you to do a land acknowledgment. This is not what we asked for.”

The confrontation was subsequently posted on Tagaban on his Instagram page, where reader comments include a demand for an apology from Peltola and Mason, and a firm declaration by Peltola about her stance regarding the situation in Gaza.

On Friday protesters confronted Peltola outside a campaign event in Anchorage and then disrupted her during her speech. Anton McParland, her chief of staff, said Saturday’s intervention included an invitation to Tagaban and others to discuss the issue later during the evening — an invitation the protesters in Anchorage refused.

“Shannon ended the part of the program when it was meant to and she offered this group of people in Juneau an opportunity to speak to Mary directly, and they did agree to do so,” he said in an interview Sunday. “And then throughout the night Mary spoke with several individuals who have concerns about what’s happening in Gaza — short conversations given the line. I had longer follow-up conversations (and) we’ve set up a couple of phone call follow-ups to have longer conversations with constituents about the issue.”

Attempts by the Empire to contact Tagaban about his comments resulted in a response from Phil Moser, a member of the group Juneau For Palestine, who said members have attempted to contact Peltola’s office as well as other members of Alaska’s congressional delegation to discuss the situation in Gaza without getting a response. A statement issued by the group to the Empire after the event declared “this is the land acknowledgment that the speakers had hoped would reach Mary.”

“With a land acknowledgment it’s not meant to be simple,” Moser said. “It’s not meant to be easy. It is a gift from the speaker. And it is a conferring of the gift of the land that you’re on, and the people that you are relating to and your responsibility as a guest on that land. Representative Peltola, more than most as our lone representative for the entire state, has a unique responsibility to the state of Alaska.”

Nicole Church performs songs during a meet-and-greet for U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola at the Crystal Saloon on Saturday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Nicole Church performs songs during a meet-and-greet for U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola at the Crystal Saloon on Saturday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Peltola, in late October, voted in favor of a House resolution condemning the Hamas attack and backing Israel’s right to defend itself that passed overwhelmingly. She was not available Sunday to directly address the allegations made by Tagaban and others about Israel’s ongoing retaliation campaign in Gaza.

The congresswoman has said she expects this campaign to be tougher than previous ones due to Republicans seeking to hold onto their slim majority in Congress and Alaska’s long history as a “red” state that favors the GOP in national elections. However, the campaign stop served as a reminder of the difficulties that can also come with failing to live up to the wishes of presumed supporters.

The race for Alaska’s lone U.S. House is currently rated as “lean Democratic” by the political publication Roll Call as Peltola is so far facing Republicans Nick Begich III (who she defeated in 2022, along with former Gov. Sarah Palin) and Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom. Peltola is seen as having advantages due to her high favorable rating in polls and Alaska’s ranked choice voting system, credited with helping her win in 2022 due to Republican opponents splitting opposition votes.

But Peltola’s seat is also among those most targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which means plenty of campaign funding and highlighting of actions linked to her — including potentially the latest confrontations about Gaza — will be mobilized against her. History also is a hindrance since Alaska has voted for Republican candidates, usually by large margins, in every election except 1964, including a 53%-43% preference for Donald Trump over Joe Biden in 2020 with a rematch of those candidates likely this November.

Peltola, in an interview with the Empire on Saturday before her campaign event, cited her influence with Biden on issues such as the opening of the Willow oil project on the North Slope as key accomplishments of her first term. However, she said Alaska will still have an advocate in the congressional delegation if Trump is elected — and that her presence in the House could take on more significance.

“(Senator) Dan Sullivan is a wonderful person to have on our team because in the event of a Trump victory he does work very well with Donald Trump,” she said. “A lot of people are predicting that the House will be Democratic, so I would be in the majority in the House. If the Senate goes Republican — right now they’re one vote off — both of our senators would be in the majority. And either way we will have people who can effectively communicate with whoever the next president is.”

Supporters of U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola sign registration sheets and pick up campaign gear during a meet-and-greet Saturday evening at the Crystal Saloon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Supporters of U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola sign registration sheets and pick up campaign gear during a meet-and-greet Saturday evening at the Crystal Saloon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Peltola’s support of Biden and aligning with House Democrats on many key bills is one of the primary attacks against her reelection campaign. The NRCC stated recently “Peltola has empowered Joe Biden and out-of-state liberals’ extreme anti-Alaska agenda,” while Dahlstrom’s campaign website states a primary reason she’s running is “our jobs, our rights, and our values are under attack from Joe Biden and Washington D.C. liberals.”

The political website Progressive Punch states Peltola ranks 192nd out of the 435 House members in voting with the Democratic coalition, doing so 80.54% of the time overall and 76.3% of the time on “critical votes.” The Democratic minority currently consists of 213 members. As a result, she has also found herself subject to criticism from liberal entities such as environmental organizations for supporting things such as the Willow oil project.

“If you look at my votes, every time I have been able to be more moderate I’ve taken that opportunity,” Peltola said. “So many of the bills that I am forced to vote against have poison pills in them, really serious things. Putting children in cages. Not allowing service members to go to another state for health care. Just draconian poison pills inside these pieces of legislation that get fixed on the Senate side and then I’m able to vote for them when they come back.”

Among the notable issues Peltola has disagreed with Biden on are his reinstating “Roadless Rule” restrictions on logging and other industrial activity in the Tongass National Forest a year ago, and on Friday pausing all pending approvals for new projects to export Liquefied Natural Gas.

She is also aligned with Alaska’s two Republican senators — and her two Republican opponents from the last election — on highlighted issues such as Willow, and banning “predatory foreign trawlers” and seafood imports from countries such as Russia and China.

As such — and since House Republicans had a large enough majority that a single vote for or against wouldn’t be decisive on virtually any issue — Peltola was asked by the Empire what occurred in Congress during the past two years that was different compared to if one of her Republican opponents had prevailed.

“Joe Biden did not want to meet with the Alaska delegation (about Willow) until after the record of decision,” she said, citing it as her first example. “And so I was able to talk with the leadership within my caucus, and they strong-armed Joe Biden and (senior advisor) John Podesta into meeting with us before the record of decision. So that gave me and our senators a chance to really help him make a decision from an Alaskan perspective. That meeting would not have taken place, that decision may not have come out the way that it did. I think the arguments that I provided were singularly compelling and they were not ones that a Republican could have made.”

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola addresses supporters during a campaign meet-and-greet Saturday night at the Crystal Saloon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola addresses supporters during a campaign meet-and-greet Saturday night at the Crystal Saloon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Peltola said her extensive experience living and being a representative for local interests in rural Alaska gives her a unique perspective in Congress about the state’s Bypass Mail and other U.S. Postal Service services that have been targeted recently for elimination or rate increases. She said she also initiated advocacy in Congress to oppose the merger of Albertsons and Kroger (the parent companies of Safeway and Fred Meyer, respectively) and started the bipartisan American Seafood Caucus.

And while she acknowledged the “fish” part of her campaign slogan has been an amusing and curious novelty among some media and politicians nationally, it’s also drawing attention to the seriousness of the issue for her constituents.

“Nobody is laughing about fish in the state of Alaska,” she said. “I like to say ‘in Alaska you don’t joke about sex, politics, money, fishing or hunting.’ There’s nothing funny or jokey about those (last) two topics.”

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

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