Alaska Native Mary Peltola on Being Elected to Congress

WMary Peltola, hen, walked to her office on Tuesday for the first-time. She glanced at a plaque before she burst into tears.

Peltola became the first Alaska Native elected Congressman less than two weeks before. But her reaction to the plaque that read “Office of the At Large Congressional District of Alaska,” was less about her own personal triumph, she said, than her grief.

Peltola (49) is finishing the term of Rep. Don Young. Young was a Republican who held this seat for almost 50 years before he died in March. Peltola was a close family friend of Young’s; in fact, half a century ago, her parents volunteered on his first congressional campaign. Now, she’s his successor.

“It’s daunting,” Peltola says. “No one will ever be able to fill his shoes.”

In an interview with TIME, Peltola, discussed her plans for finishing Young’s term after her stunning special election victory over former governor and conservative firebrand Sarah Palin. This election marked the debut of ranked-choice vote, which allows voters to order candidates according to their preference. Her days as a campaigner are not over. Alaska Democrat and she still have a general election in November. She also spoke about her plan to transform her two-month term to a two year term.

Two separate conversations were edited to make the interview more concise.

Many voters wrote you in second place and helped you win a special election. How do you feel your race speaks volumes about the benefits of ranked-choice vote?

This shows there’s a demand for middle-of the-road candidates, I believe. Moving away from closed-partisan primaries will allow us to elect less ideologues that are more entrenched, capable of compromise, building consensus and helping others. This shows me that candidates like these are easier to accept, even when they may not be the first choice. It adds additional value.

The Alaskans knew Sarah Palin well. Was she vulnerable in this race, you ask?

She can be very polarizing, even though I love her. They had a great working relationship. My two years of service as governor coincided perfectly with hers. However, her support was only in the 30% range and she was unable to tap into people who were not her supporters.

Palin begged Nick Begich (a Republican) to withdraw from the race in order to consolidate Republican support. His presence was it a help to you?

Begich excels in public policy. He has innovative ideas. I’m not necessarily sure that if we get more out of the field, people who ranked him first would necessarily rank Sarah first. We saw that there were many Republican votes, and many conservative Alaskans who either ranked Nick first or me second in ranked-choice vote voting. I’m not sure necessarily that if one is out of the field, that their votes automatically go to the other.

How did you get to November victory? What are your plans to transform your 2-month-old term into a 2-year term?

I need to work at making sure that I’m communicating with Republicans and conservative voters. It’s important to me that they understand that my values probably align with theirs: We all want good schools for our kids; we all want adequate housing and affordable housing options, whether that’s renting or purchasing; we all want to see inflation go down and the cost of living to go down; we’re all concerned about gas and oil prices going sky high. But, people also care deeply about maintaining democracy. It is important that we have faith in the elected officials.

Are you appealing to conservative voters in any way?

It’s just showing them that I’m a regular Alaskan. Second Amendment rights are important to me. I believe in women’s reproductive rights and our attachment to freedom. In the state legislature for 10 years, I was the chairperson of the Bush Caucus. This group consisted 10 rural members from 40. We were usually five Republicans or five Democrats. No matter which party you were, all of us were just trying to help Alaskans get ahead. K-12 education and university funding were our main priorities. We also worked tirelessly to develop more technical vocational programs as well as properly fund those programs. These are not issues that can be swayed.

Alaska is known for its large hunting population. Are you a supporter of universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and a ban on the sale of assault weapons? These are the top priorities for national Democrats.

Background checks are something I fully support. I don’t think that that is an infringement on Second Amendment rights. Because they have been used in Alaska hunting, I’d like to know the details of an assault weapon ban. These weapons are linked to food security. But right out of the gate, no, I don’t support a complete ban on all assault rifles.

Is it a great honor to be elected the first Alaska Native Congressman?

This is great news. But I just really want to emphasize to the folks that I’m the representative for all Alaskans, regardless of their ethnic background or gender or religious affiliation.. I’m here to work for all Alaskans.

Are Alaskans tired of Trump and his acolytes in Alaska?

He does seem to have strong support. This is evidence of the universal disenfranchisement and feeling of being overlooked, forgotten or ignored. It is now a universal feeling that extends to Caucasians as well as men and it should not be overlooked. This is an authentic feeling. It didn’t come out of nowhere. I don’t think that there’s any use in dismissing that. I feel that everyone who experiences those feelings must be acknowledged and validated as authentic. We should find a way to make sure everyone feels that they’re being heard.

Are you interested in Biden coming to Alaska with you to run for office?

I’d like to take a wait-and-see approach. I don’t know what is on the horizon. I haven’t thought about that much. Really, right now, what I’m focused on is rolling up my sleeves and getting to work to fill out the remainder of Congressman Young’s term and to get some wins for Alaska. Then, I will be able to return to campaign mode.

Would you recommend that he run for reelection in your opinion?

I don’t have an opinion on that right now.

Was your relationship with Don Young like?

He was close friends with my parents. Don Young and my father taught school in Fort Yukon together in the 1960s. This was a tiny community along the Yukon River. They became great friends. Both were hunters. Both of them had winter trap lines. One summer, they bought a bulldozer to fight a wildfire. They worked 12-hour shifts. My dad doesn’t have a lot of close friends, but Don was certainly one of his lifelong friends. When I went to school in Pennsylvania and wasn’t able to get home for Thanksgiving, I was invited by Don to spend Thanksgiving with his family in Virginia. That was the first time I’d ever spent Thanksgiving without my family. Don’s 49 year service and dedication to his state, as well as his unwavering commitment to us and our people have earned me immense respect.

Is it a good idea to fill in the shoes of his successor now?

It’s daunting. He will never be replaced.

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