An essential skill for a political spokesperson is “staying on message,” but for Juneau’s Shannon Mason that message is making a big shift from advocating the agenda of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy to publicizing the priorities of Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola.
Mason, 24, who starts her new job as deputy communications director for the congresswoman Friday, said taking jobs with both politicians caused considerable comment from people around her at the time she accepted them. But she said the intrigue and purpose of the profession is what lures her to be a spokesperson regardless of her political opinions and, in many instances, the issues and stances of the two elected leaders aren’t as different as their party affiliations might suggest.
“I think Alaska is just so interesting, that this kind of happens a lot,” she said in an interview in early August, a few days after her last day as the governor’s deputy press secretary. “You know, people do jump from spot to spot, party to party. I think it’s because Alaska is so mixed. You get Peltola and Dunleavy, and they were elected in the same year (in the November 2022 election, when Dunleavy won his second term and Peltola her first). That’s weird.”
The first time Mason said she met Peltola professionally was during Typhoon Merbok last September, when the congresswoman and Dunleavy participated in a joint press conference to discuss actions being taken to assist communities along 1,300 miles of western Alaska’s coastline devastated by the historic-strength storm. It was also peak campaign season and, while Mason was employed by a Republican politician, she nonetheless posted or reposted numerous social media messages complimentary of Peltola’s campaign against two Republican challengers.
“She’s just one of those people, you want to be around her,” Mason said, discussing her impressions from the press conference.
Peltola and Dunleavy have taken opposing positions on numerous issues during the year since that event, but Mason said she doesn’t expect herself to be in an awkward spot when the two leaders come together again in other public settings.
“I think I honestly think that they will probably get along more, they’ll be more similar, than there will be differences,” she said. “And that’s just a hunch I have. Neither of them are bashing other politicians. So I don’t think I’ll ever be in a situation where I’ll feel like ‘oh, no, I might be saying something that will offend someone else.’”
“So my friend and I are starting a magazine featuring Alaskan artists, art and fun things like that. Help us pick out a name by filling out this form.” – Shannon Mason, Twitter/X, July 10, 2021, a few weeks before she started working for Gov. Mike Dunleavy
Mason, an Alaska Native who grew up in Juneau, has crossed the media as well as the political aisle during her career. Her work as a journalist started while attending The Kings College in New York City, where she was editor of the student-run Empire State Tribune newspaper and graduated in 2020. Her other work included internships at the New York Daily News in 2019 and Rolling Stone in 2020.
After returning to Juneau and seeking a reporting job, she became a communications specialist for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska in September of 2020. Less than a year later Mason announced on social media her plan to start an Alaska arts magazine, but almost immediately afterward took her fateful step into the political world.
“I saw the governor’s application go up and I was like ‘oh, that would be awesome,’” she said. “So it wasn’t like I was looking. I just applied and I got a call back the next day. I thought it was going to be an awesome opportunity. And it was it was an amazing opportunity. I wouldn’t change it.”
Mason said she was surprised by the quick response and, seemingly without the listed required experience, even more surprised when she got the job. She said she would have applied regardless of who the governor was at the time, but because her parents were Dunleavy supporters she was generally familiar with him as a politician and with Alaska’s political scene.
“We’re all in a unique situation where we actually kind of see politics up close, especially living here and growing up,” she said. “And just getting to interact with different people. I would go to school with different representatives’ and senators’ kids. And it was just something that felt like familiar to me, I guess.”
Many of Mason’s friends and the people she worked with at Tlingit and Haida were also familiar with Dunleavy, and the reaction of some when she announced her new job was a bit of a jolt.
“I think in some ways you lose a lot of people and then you also gain a lot of people,” she said. “So I made a lot of really good, amazing friends in the Capitol. No one in the Capitol has ever been mean to me because of who I work for. It’s people outside of politics who don’t really know me have been the people that have been really harsh. I’d have people messaging me on Twitter and telling me I’m a sellout. And it was like a lot of people that I went to high school with and stuff. But ultimately, I don’t really know the people anyways.”
”I love it when people reply to my press releases as if I personally emailed them with this information.” – Shannon Mason, Twitter/X, Feb. 11, 2022
Mason said she never met Dunleavy during the interview process, but afterward her first encounter was indicative of a working relationship that would be more about personas than politician positions.
“I met him the first day in the governor’s mansion,” she said. “And the first day I walked in he was like ‘Who are you?’And I was like, ‘Hi, I’m your new press person.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, tell me about yourself.’ He loves to do the 20 questions.”
But being a spokesperson also meant emerging into the public eye, as she learned when the Alaska Landmine reported her hiring by noting Dunleavy “has come a long way since Tuckerman Babcock and Donna Arduin,” referring to two highly controversial and conservative top advisors.
Mason, on the other hand, “even has her pronouns in her Linkedin bio,” the Landmine noted in a Twitter/X post. However, a subsequent post noted “soon after my retweet, she locked down her Twitter account and even deleted the original tweet.”
Two years later after her last day working for Dunleavy, Mason described the experience as a surreal and enlightening initiation.
“This blog, who I’d never heard of, like made a whole thing,” she said. “And I was getting like so many different comments on the post. I started to freak. I was like ‘what have I done wrong?’ That was my great entrance into Alaska politics to be like, ‘oh, we’re not unnoticed.’”
The demands of the new job also meant a big mental and social adjustment since, at the age of 22, “my friends are having fun and people would be like ‘you can’t,’” Mason said. Adding to that sense of initial isolation was she was working in Juneau — remotely, due to the COVID-19 pandemic — while the rest of the governor’s communications staff was in Anchorage.
Most of her work during the initial months involved social media, rather than writing press releases and speaking to the media on behalf of the governor. She said she quickly adjusted to the role of presenting his policies and proposals without the influence of her own thoughts.
“There was a lot of days where I’m like, ’yeah, I don’t agree with this, but you’re gonna do it,’” she said. “Because at the end of the day I wasn’t elected. He was elected. And it’s not about me or what I think. It’s about what he thinks.”
Mason said she expects there will be similar occurrences with Peltola. Similarly, there will also be times when Mason has to issue statements taking the opposite position of statements she issued just months ago, due to differences between the governor and congresswoman on issues such as Alaska Native rights, environmental protections and social issues.
A taste of the everyday work Mason said she expects to do extensively in her new job began last October when she became what she called Dunleavy’s “body man” last October, which meant accompanying him extensively on statewide trips to help coordinate events, and meet with local officials and residents.
“He’s like a teacher, so he’s like ‘Oh, you’re interested in this? Well come with me and I’ll show you how this works,’” she said. “And I think that was the best part of the job, was getting to go to a bunch of rural Alaska areas.”
Ultimately, Mason said she felt her role was getting people to pay attention to Dunleavy’s words and letting him try to do the persuading when it came to politics.
“At the end of the job I was I felt pretty good about being able to say I showed people who Mike Dunleavy is as a person, rather than a politician who people don’t really feel like they know (other than) this 6-foot, 7-inch guy.”
”Campaigns should be able to trade staffers like sports plays” – Shannon Mason, meme shared on Twitter/X, June 11, 2023
Continuing to visit remote parts of Alaska — and probably more often — will remain a major part of her new job for Peltola.
Mason said she started thinking about moving on from the governor’s office several months ago, stating two years is considered a long time to be a politician’s press secretary by many who work in the profession, and the apparent alternative was sticking with Dunleavy through the second term he was elected to last November.
“I was happy where I was. I was like ‘I could keep going for like another three years,’” she said. “Or I could just put out the feelers to see who else is looking for people.”
In addition to being familiar with Peltola, Mason said he got to know the congresswoman’s chief of staff, Anton McParland, during the recent legislative session and that led to a discussion about possible job openings — and ultimately the offer of one.
“I was a little bit nervous to like tell all of my governor’s office people, but they were so happy for me,” Mason said. “And I think the governor — again, he’s like a teacher — so he just wants to see people go on to do like good things. And so he was just so excited for me because he’s like ‘Yes, this is like an opportunity. Yes, take it. You should always be moving, jumping to the higher thing.’”
Mason — who said she asked to remain based in Juneau rather than moving to Anchorage or Washington, D.C. — said there nonetheless will be another political learning curve for her as she adjusts to federal-level policies and procedures. She’s also likely going to have to used to being more in the public spotlight on a bigger stage.
“Our chief of staff said that I’d be doing a lot more interviews on her behalf because she’s a busy woman, she’s not always going to have the availability,” Mason said, comparing the frequency of such interviews between her old job and new one.
But familiarity with policy and the people she’ll have to interact with — both ordinary citizens and the people working in the hallways of Congress with her new boss — aren’t among her concerns.
“I really like what she’s done for Alaska,” Mason said. “So far I think she’s fascinating. I think we align a lot on a lot of policy views, which is always nice, because I would prefer to have a good alignment with someone who I’m working for.”
One X-factor is it’s not a job with long-term security. Peltola will be running for her second full two-year term next year and the National Republican Congressional Committee has named her seat among those being targeted as being the most likely to expand the party’s slim majority. But Mason, who said she might be interested in being a political consult in her long-term future, said she’s ready to embrace the campaign trail if Peltola wants — and already has material for soundbites at the ready.
“I have full faith that she’ll be reelected,” Mason said. “And I think campaigns are a lot more fun. I know it’s such a simple answer, but it’s so exciting and they’re so fun, and you never really know what’s going to happen because every day is different. And I really just believe in her message and I’d like to be on her team when she wins.”
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 957-2306.