U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, stands in the well of the House Chambers with other Democrats, including former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to hear Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., deliver remarks shortly after becoming the new minority leader on Jan. 6. The speech came after a nearly weeklong stalemate by Republicans in electing a speaker after they won a narrow majority in November’s election. (Screenshot from C-SPAN video feed)

Peltola learning the House party is over

Distractions and inaction replace honeymoon headlines as Alaska’s new rep joins minority.

With a the new Congress underway, Alaska’s lone U.S. House member now finds herself a member of the political minority whose time is largely consumed by “never-ending distractions” and facing an emergence of negative headlines.

Peltola, during a online 15-minute “press gaggle” Thursday from her Washington, D.C. office, said official House business so far during the day consisted of a party-line vote to remove fellow Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee plus a resolution condemning the “horrors of socialism.”

“One of the things that has not necessarily surprised me, but has disappointed me, is how little work that has been going on during this session,” Peltola said.

The vote on Omar for what Republicans in the new majority called “repeated antisemitic and anti-American remarks” featured what the Washington Post called “yelling and Omar defending herself on the verge of tears” (and two GOP members reportedly called the “stupidest vote in the world”). Peltola was among the nays in the 218-211 party-line vote (one Republican voted “present”), stating “she has not done anything that in my opinion would warrant her removal.”

Peltola, on other hand, was among the 111 Democrats who joined Republicans in voting for the socialism resolution, even while characterizing it as pointless.

“All of this is to say there are never ending distractions,” she said. “You could spend all of your time working on these non-work issues that Alaskans don’t care about.”

Peltola skyrocketed to global fame as the surprise winner of a special House election last August following the death of longtime U.S. Rep. Don Young, and in following weeks receiving largely glowing headlines about her positive campaign for full two-year term in the November election and actions such as hiring key members of Young’s staff. But issues plenty of Alaskans do care about have surfaced during the past couple of weeks and Peltola’s taking heat in headlines on some of them.

A missed vote on a Republican-led bill last Friday limiting the Biden administration’s access to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was one of those stories, due to Peltola missing the vote that passed 221-205. She also almost certainly would have made headlines as well by voting since she said she would have joined only one other Democrat favoring the bill.

Instead, she said the absence due to visiting the bathroom during what the Anchorage Daily News called a “quick-fire series of votes” including nearly 60 amendments to the bill that each went through two-minute floor votes.

The most prominent, although arguably less substantial, “negative” coverage came Jan. 20 when Peltola’s picture was featured above a USA Today headline about new congressional members with apparently false information in their biographies, prompted by the revelations about wholesale fibber George Santos. The issue was if she attended a Colorado university between 1991-94 as claimed, or departed in 1993 as the school’s records showed.

Some Alaska conservatives immediately portrayed Peltola and Santos as equal sinners, although mainstream media then and in subsequent reports noted the vast differences in the scale of discrepancies, and her admission it was apparently a date she misreported in her state legislative bio during the late 1990s.

An instance of the potentially tricky waters she’ll have navigate as a U.S. representative came when the Alaska Landmine reported Peltola’s husband, Gene, was one of four co-owners of a company formed last year hoping to get a piece of the carbon credits business Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy is pitching as something that could earn billions of dollars for the state during the coming years. The report and subsequent media coverage merely raised questions about potential influence peddling rather than substantiating any occurred, and that Dunleavy quickly rejected an initial proposed agreement since it would have been an illegal sole-source contract.

Not getting nearly as much notice in recent news, but likely to provoke strong feelings among some of her constituents, was her votes Tuesday against House measures calling for immediately ending the national COVID-19 health emergency and related rules such as requiring health care workers to be vaccinated. President Joe Biden said Monday he intends end the declaration May 11, while Dunleavy ended the state’s emergency declaration last April.

Peltola, who during the fall campaign said she opposed vaccine mandates in Alaska while being the only House candidate declaring the pandemic was “real” rather than political, said Thursday the virus-related votes mostly along party lines were due to a “triple pandemic” of COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus being reported by some health officials. Furthermore, she said there are economic benefits for affected entities by maintaining the emergency status for a few more months.

“I think it’s important not making things harder for hospitals and people on the ground,” she said. At the same time, she called it yet another distraction because “this is another one of these things where we could debate all day long and still be in the same situation.”

The past week has also seen action by the Biden administration on a trio of issues of immense interest and importance to Alaska, which for Peltola and Alaska’s two Republican senators has meant issuing prepared statement (which were largely in agreement) while pondering possible future legislative action.

The first came last Friday when the Biden administration reinstated the Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest, which Peltola expressed concern about the decision in less condemning tones than Alaska’s senators. The second was Tuesday when the Environmental Protection Agency issued a potentially fatal veto to the proposed Pebble Mine in the same Southwest region of the state Peltola calls home, with all three delegation members expressing opposition to the project. On Wednesday the administration released a study seen as a huge step toward final approval of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope, which Peltola and the two senators support.

Peltola spent part of Thursday’s media session offering a long list of state and nationwide issues she said needs addressing such as Alaska’s ongoing outmigration, reviving Bristol Bay’s salmon economy, providing rural infrastructure including internet access and the looming June deadline to raise the federal debt ceiling. But while “I joke that every second counts almost every day,” there is the political reality of now being in the minority of a House she calls disappointingly inactive.

As of Thursday she is listed as the co-sponsor of four bills, all introduced by Republicans, and three of which have between 46 and 171 co-sponsors. During her few months in the majority between last September and the beginning of January she was the primary sponsor of 13 bills (one signed into law) and co-sponsor of 25.

In another reality check of her diminished status, she also had to move at the start of the new session from Young’s imposing office, described in one news report as “the most eye-popping” on Capitol Hill due to decades of museum-like acquisitions, to a humbler space in another building across the street from the Capitol.

The new space will feature a familiar spac .

Politico was among the national publications giving prominence during the past day to Peltola for hiring former rival Josh Revak, a former Republican state legislator who ran against her in the U.S. House election, as her state director.

One person who asserted Thursday that Peltola is “still firmly in honeymoon phrase” is Ivan Moore, head of Alaska Survey Research, who released a poll showing 57% of 1,397 Alaskans polled between Jan. 12-18 (prior to stories/events of the past week) have a positive opinion of her, 28% negative, 13% neutral and 2% declaring they don’t know who she is. Moore stated those figures remain the highest of any statewide politician in Alaska.

Peltola’s job approval rating is more uncertain with 44% of respondents saying they approve, 17% disapproving and 39% not sure.

“Folks reserving judgment until they see something more concrete,” Moore summarized in a Twitter message on his official account. “It’ll be interesting to track this measure as we go through the next two years.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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