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Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native heading to Congress, journeys home to the river

Mary Peltola has been fishing on the Kuskokwim since she was a child.
Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media
Mary Peltola has been fishing on the Kuskokwim since she was a child.

BETHEL, Alaska — Democrat Mary Peltola could not wait to get out on the Kuskokwim, the river she grew up on, south of the Yukon and upriver from the Bering Sea.

She's pulled gillnets full of salmon from this river every summer since she was a child. Subsistence fishing and hunting is a way of life here, even for people with office jobs.

This summer, though, Peltola had been away, campaigning for Alaska's sole seat in the U.S. House. She finally flew home to Bethel in late August and was itching to get on the water.

But a storm was moving through. That was a problem because the main goal of this trip was to capture footage of her on the river, for campaign ads.

"It's good fishing weather, but it's not great filming weather," she said. "I think there's some concern that equipment isn't damaged," she said.

So Peltola, wearing a gray blazer and more makeup than she's used to, sat back down under the bright lights set up in her living room and took direction from her media consultant and cameraman.

"I'm Mary Peltola and here's why I'm running for Don Young's seat in Congress," she said, over and over, striving for just the right level of energy.

With a TV crew and media consultant Martha McKenna of Baltimore, Peltola filmed a TV spot in her Bethel home.
/ Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media
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Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media
With a TV crew and media consultant Martha McKenna of Baltimore, Peltola filmed a TV spot in her Bethel home.

She didn't know it then, but she had already won her long-shot campaign to replace the late Congressman Young.

After a 15-day waiting period for mailed ballots to arrive in the special election, Peltola learned on Aug. 31 she'd beaten the most famous Alaskan in history, former Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, in one of the reddest states in the nation.

Peltola turned 49 last Wednesday, the same day she became congresswoman-elect of the 49th state. Born Mary Sattler, she's the daughter of a Yup'ik mom and a Nebraskan dad who went north to teach school and later became a Bush pilot.

Peltola will be the first Alaska Native in Congress when she's sworn in this month to fill the remainder of Young's term.

Meanwhile, she and Palin are also on the ballot in November, for the next full House term. Whatever the result of the special election, she knew she needed campaign ads. So, when the storm let up, Peltola threw off her blazer and put on bulky layers, topped with rain gear.

"Everyone has a float coat?" she called out to the film crew. She began throwing things in her aluminum skiff — buckets, an anchor, life jackets.

"Last bit of survival tools and necessities," she said. "OK. We're ready to roll!"

Her rivalry with Sarah Palin is more of a love fest

Peltola went away to college, but at age 24 ran for state House and beat an incumbent. She stayed in office for a decade, overlapping with then-Gov. Palin. They bonded in the state Capitol, as two pregnant moms in office. When Palin left Juneau for the campaign trail, Peltola said, she bequeathed her backyard trampoline to Peltola.

Palin didn't respond to interview requests. She vilifies Democrats in general. After Peltola's win Wednesday, Palin called on Begich — the other Republican in the race — to "take the loss like a real Alaskan man" and withdraw from the November election. But Palin calls Peltola a "sweetheart" and says she's admirable.

The lack of rivalry goes both ways.

"I think she's great," Peltola said.

That politeness is on-brand for her. In the Legislature, Peltola was known for uncommon kindness.

"She was never bitter. She was never angry. She was never partisan," Andrew Halcro said.

He and Peltola were freshman legislators in 1999. (Also new in the state House that year: Lisa Murkowski, now Alaska's senior U.S. senator. She speaks highly of Peltola, too.)

A White Republican who represented a relatively wealthy Anchorage district, Halcro ignited statewide fury with a speech he now regrets. He likened Bush residents to children who don't learn to tie their laces because the state keeps sending Velcro shoes.

A lot of Alaskans wrote Halcro off as a racist.

But within hours, he said, Peltola was at his office door, asking if she could offer a different perspective on Power Cost Equalization, the rural energy subsidy he had derided. He came to see the program as she does, as a matter of equity for regions that didn't benefit from expensive hydroelectric projects the state funded.

"I think with Mary Peltola, you should never, ever misconstrue kindness for somebody who's not going to stand up for what she believes in," Halcro said.

Bev Hoffman of Bethel has known Peltola her whole life.

"She is nice. But she is so tough," Hoffman said with admiration.

They fought together on fish issues, and to get a swimming pool for Bethel, where drownings were common because few people learned to swim. They were at odds for six years, when Peltola worked as manager of sustainability for Donlin Gold, a mine project Peltola no longer supports.

Bev Hoffman says Peltola is no pushover: "She is nice. But she is so tough."
/ Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media
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Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media
Bev Hoffman says Peltola is no pushover: "She is nice. But she is so tough."

Hoffman said Peltola has a way of listening intently and drawing people of opposing views together.

"She doesn't yell at people," Hoffman said.

Peltola said yelling isn't effective. She credits her upbringing and her mentors for her political style.

"The region where I'm from, there is a big premium on being respectful, on not using inflammatory language or harsh tones," she said.

Peltola believes in the power of small gestures. She said she once defused an urban Republican legislator, just by pointing out that he — being decades her senior — had lived more years in Alaska than she had.

She said they got on great after that, and to her, that's good politics.

Fighting for salmon is Peltola's cause

Back on the river, Peltola was facing a cumbersome mission — driving a boat through the braids of the Kuskokwim with the weight of extra visitors, accommodating microphones and providing good angles for the camera.

There's a more serious problem with this fishing trip: There are no fish. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is suffering another year of dismal salmon returns.

"Growing up, and until probably 2010, our greatest fear was that we'd catch too many fish," Peltola said, adding that 70 salmon a day is the maximum she and her husband can comfortably cut and clean. "Now, our greatest fear is that we won't catch single-digit numbers of fish."

King salmon used to be the mainstay of the diet here. When those populations plunged, people made do with the smaller chum salmon and then filled in with August silvers if they didn't catch enough to last the winter.

This year, for the first time, even silvers did not return in sufficient numbers. The Kuskokwim was closed to all forms of fishing.

This is a tragedy beyond words for this salmon-based region. Peltola has spent the past five years of her career on it, as director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Protecting salmon is a major campaign theme.

"Yeah, this is kind of the center of my universe," she said, at the mouth of a tributary called the Gweek. "Just because my uncles taught me exactly where to put the net to catch certain kinds of fish."

She pointed out the bank on the left where her great-grandparents lived, outside of any village, until the government said they had to enroll their daughter in school.

"My mom was born over here, in Tabungaluk Slough," she said, pointing across to the right. "It was August and berry-picking time, so this is where she was born."

A camera crew documents Mary Peltola fishing for a campaign ad.
/ Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media
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Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media
A camera crew documents Mary Peltola fishing for a campaign ad.

Scientists aren't sure why the salmon aren't returning to this river. Climate change and ocean acidification are factors. Peltola also attributes it to the thousands of salmon caught by accident at sea, by trawlers targeting pollock.

(The At-Sea Processors Association, which represents some of the largest factory trawlers, says it's taking steps to limit bycatch, but says larger factors are to blame.)

Non-salmon producing tributaries of the Kuskokwim are open to fishing. So, primarily for the camera, Peltola leaned over the bow and fed a small set net into the water. Sometimes salmon make a wrong turn. But when reeled the net back into the boat later, it was empty.

"I stay hopeful right until the end, because sometimes you get lucky, right at the end meshes," she said.

Copyright 2022 Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media