Mary Peltola has gone from an obscure longshot candidate a few months ago to warning an adoring Juneau crowd her reelection as Alaska’s lone U.S. House member in two weeks is not the “slam dunk” polls are starting to suggest — and defending herself from what she said was her first confrontation with a potential voter about a negative campaign ad.
Peltola, a Bethel Democrat who made history and gained global notoriety by being the first Alaska Native elected to Congress, spent Monday evening and much of Tuesday at her first events in Juneau since winning the Aug. 16 special election to fill the rest of the late Rep. Don Young’s term.
A poll released this week by Alaska Survey Research shows her “categorically on fire” against the two Republicans she defeated and is facing again, according to Ivan Moore, head of the company. Peltola is the first choice of 48.9% of respondents, followed by Sarah Palin at 25.6%, Nick Begich III at 20.5% and Libertarian Chris Bye at 5%. Peltola, according to the poll, is favored to win by at least 12% over both Begich and Palin when second-choice ballots are added under the state’s new ranked choice voting system.
Peltola won the special election by three-point margin over Palin when ranked choice ballots were counted. The Democrat has enjoyed a bipartisan honeymoon leading up to the general election due to actions such as hiring many of Young’s staff members and reintroducing his pending legislation, but she told the Juneau crowd during an event Monday evening at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall “this is not a slam dunk.”
“In the last election Juneau was my margin — yea Juneau!” she said. “They’re not going to underestimate us a second time.”
Peltola, discussing survey results she’s seeing in reviews with campaign staff, said “so many of our supporters are not enthusiastic voters” due to demographic and related factors. That prompted her get-out-the-vote pitch about how people who are political enthusiasts will be vital in getting non-enthusiasts to turn out.
She also took the stage again a few minutes after concluding her short welcoming speech after she said a person questioned her about an ad by one of her Republican opponents, Nick Begich III, stating she voted to raise taxes while serving in the Alaska State Legislature. Peltola said the accusation is a lie and the vote refers to part of a fiscal package more than a decade ago.
“This is one of the things that bothers me about the American election system,” she told the crowd, noting in an interview afterward it’s her first confrontation about an attack ad during her two campaigns. “I am not for inflation. I’m not for increasing anyone’s taxes…I’m also against the atomic bomb.”
Monday’s event, attended by several hundred people, featured auctions of artwork and cakes, an entrance dance procession with Peltola at the rear, and a welcoming dance. Afterward, Peltola spent most of the two-hour event talking with a long line of attendees — ranging from those who’ve known her for decades to just-arrived residents who registered to vote days ago — about a wide range of issues along with signing various campaign memorabilia.
Among the most noticeable attendees was Nancy Barnes, an elder and member of the Yees Ku Oo Dancers, who led an entrance dance procession into the room where the gathering took place — with Peltola the last dancer in the line. Barnes said she worked for former state Rep. and Sen. Albert Kookesh back in the 1990s when Peltola was an intern with KTOO before getting elected to the Alaska State Legislature and “I knew she was going to do big things.”
“I didn’t know there this was going, but the first time I heard her on the (state) House floor I was like ’holy cow,’” Barnes said. Today “I haven’t ever been this excited about a campaign.”
A newcomer who’s been an Alaska resident for less time than the six weeks Peltola has been in Congress is Lauren Tanel, who said she moved here from the San Francisco area and registered to vote on the deadline date.
“I’m just excited to be voting in an election that matters,” she told Peltola.
Peltola also participated in an hour-long meet-and-greet at Coppa late Tuesday morning, during which her campaign paid for everyone’s drinks and pastries. A gift in return came from Raymond Wilson, 89, a Juneau resident and Alaska Native Veteran who served in the war in Korea, who told her he is planning a ceremony invoking the spirit of a Chilkat headdress and robe on display at the Alaska State Museum.
“The Chilkat robe will be wrapped around her all the time, and protect her from the things she’ll have to go through,” he said after their exchange. Specifically, according to Peltola, he told her “to imagine you have the Chilkat blanket around you when they start throwing mud and it will protect you.”
Peltola’s visit occurred the same day local staff started hosting a week of mobile office hours to hear constituent concerns. Hours scheduled during the remainder of the week include 5-8 p.m. Wednesday at the downtown Juneau Library and 2-5 p.m. Saturday at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library.
The congresswoman, in an interview, said specific issues brought to her attention from such meetings are confidential, but have included obtaining Veterans Administration benefits, immigration efforts and resolving other difficulties getting help with federal programs.
“There’s red tape sometimes and things get lost in piles on desks,” she said.
Staff members based in Alaska and Washington, D.C., are conducting similar constituent meetings elsewhere in Alaska as well as meeting with various leaders and groups about specific issues. Peltola, when asked if she will retain Young’s staff members if elected to a full two-year term, said “I don’t see any reason to make changes.”
Peltola, who’s often referred to carrying on Young’s legacy since being sworn in, said the ongoing references to her predecessor who served nearly 50 years in office is because “in my hometown people referred to what I was doing as a Don Young thing.”
“It’s easier than saying ’U.S. Congress,’” she said.
But Peltola also emphasized “I am not going to make it sound like I’m expecting a full term” and doesn’t want to speculate on what else might be different if, as expected, Republicans take over leadership of the House during the next term.
“I am not a fortune teller,” she said. “I am very loathe to make any predictions.”
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org