JUNEAU, Alaska — Bernadette Demientieff said she cried when she learned of Democrat Mary Peltola's win in Alaska's U.S. House special election, making Peltola the first Alaska Native to be elected to Congress.
“I feel a little bit of relief knowing that somebody will be down there that can really relate and understand what it is to be Alaskan, to be an Alaska Native and to have that connection to our homeland,” said Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. The indigenous Gwich’in have fought for years against efforts to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and she hopes to lay out their concerns with Peltola.
Peltola, 49, Yup'ik, is set to serve the remainder of the late Republican Rep. Don Young’s term, which ends in January.
Young, who died in March, held the seat for 49 years. Zack Brown, a former spokesperson in Young’s office, said that "many staffers over the years heard the Congressman express that he’d like to see the seat one day held by an Alaska Native woman."
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But even as Peltola celebrated Wednesday, when results of the Aug. 16 ranked choice special election were released, she was looking toward November, when she will once again face Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, her competitors in the special election. The November general election will decide who wins a full two-year term.
Peltola sought to stay above the fray during a campaign in which Begich cast Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and a former governor, as unserious and chasing fame.
Palin, who touted widespread name recognition and former President Donald Trump's endorsement, questioned Begich's Republican credentials and issued perhaps her strongest rebuke of him Thursday, saying “Negative Nick” had divided Republicans with his “dirty campaigning” and should drop out of the race. Begich comes from a family of prominent Democrats but has said he's a lifelong Republican.
This was the first statewide ranked voting election in Alaska. Supporters of ranked voting say it encourages candidates to run positive campaigns to earn support from beyond their traditional bases. Scott Kendall, who helped write the ballot measure passed by voters in 2020 that scrapped party primaries and instituted ranked voting in general elections, said Begich “ran a clinic on how to perform poorly in a ranked choice election.”
“He was negative,” he said. “And what do you know? When you tell your supporters that the other Republican is worthless, maybe they believe you.”
Begich finished third in first choice votes, meaning he was eliminated. Voters who ranked him first had their votes count for their next choice. Of the Begich voters who ranked a second candidate, about 36 percent chose Peltola and 64 percent chose Palin, according to preliminary figures.
Peltola said she is “very excited to work for Alaskans” over the next few months but also “very committed to staying focused to the campaign for the two-year seat and really focused on November.”
She acknowledged the historic nature of her win, which Peltola said Wednesday was “still sinking in,” but said she is “much more than just my ethnicity or gender." Peltola also will be the first woman to hold Alaska's House seat.
Alaska is a diverse state, she noted, and "we really need to be focused on all working together to overcome our challenges.”
Peltola served five terms in the Alaska House, ending in 2009, and most recently worked for a commission aimed at rebuilding salmon resources on the Kuskokwim River. Her time in the Legislature overlapped with Palin's time as governor and the two have been cordial.
Peltola said she began fishing as a child with her father. The self-described salmon advocate said she was motivated to run for the U.S. House by environmental issues facing Alaska and wanted to draw attention to issues of ocean productivity and food insecurity. She has raised concerns over low salmon runs.
With the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in June, Peltola has said she wanted to be “an advocate for safe and legal abortions."
Peltola said any additional leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge "should proceed as long as there is support by the people that live there and protections in place for our natural resources, including the caribou.”
Joe Nelson, board chairman at Sealaska, an Alaska Native corporation, said Peltola understands the importance of a subsistence way of life — living off the land and harvesting fish, berries and wildlife. Sealaska had encouraged voters to support Peltola and on Wednesday lauded her win as a “historic moment.”
Nelson, who is also Peltola's ex-husband, said having an Alaska Native in Congress is “long overdue" and said more Native voices in leadership roles are needed.
Andrew Halcro, a Republican, said he ranked Peltola first in the special election and Republican write-in candidate Tara Sweeney second. Halcro and Peltola served in the state Legislature together, he from Anchorage and Peltola from the rural hub community of Bethel. He said he was a “know-nothing guy” who made some “unfortunate comments” around a program that provides economic assistance to communities where electricity costs can be far higher than in more urban areas.
He said this was at a time when the “urban/rural divide was raging” in the Legislature and that Peltola came to his office saying, "Hey, if you’re interested, I’d be happy to educate you on this.”
Peltola “was really one of the rural lawmakers in my freshman year that really changed my outlook on rural Alaska and really helped me get educated on the challenges that they face,” he said.
Supporters of Peltola say she has a knack for connecting with people. Peltola said one thing she’s learned during the campaign that she hopes to build on is “how much we all need positivity and hope and inspiration.”
Beth Kerttula, a Democrat who served in the Legislature with Peltola, said Peltola's victory is not a “fluke.”
“Sometimes it’s the right person in the right place at the right time, and that’s Mary,” she said, calling Peltola a gifted speaker and coalition builder who "just shines.”
“If you didn’t know who she was, then it's like, wow, look at that,” she said of Peltola's win. “But that was no mistake. People believed in Mary.”