Alaska Natives Celebrate Historic Peltola Election

By BECKY BOHRER
Associated press

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Bernadette Demientieff said she cried when she learned of Democrat Mary Peltola’s victory in the U.S. House special election in Alaska, making Peltola the first native in the Alaska to be elected to Congress.

“I feel a little relief knowing that someone will be there who can really understand and understand what it’s like to be from Alaska, to be an Alaskan native and to have this connection to our homeland,” said Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. The Gwich’in natives have fought for years against drilling efforts in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and she hopes to bring their concerns to Peltola.

Peltola, 49, who is Yup’ik, is expected 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 spokesman for Young’s office, said “many staffers over the years have heard the congressman express that he would like to see the seat filled one day by a Native American woman. Alaska”.

But even as Peltola celebrated on Wednesday, when the results of the August 16 ranked special election were released, she was looking to November, when she will 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 portrayed Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee and former governor, as unserious and seeking glory.

Palin, who has touted the widespread name recognition and endorsement of former President Donald Trump, questioned Begich’s Republican credentials and delivered perhaps his strongest rebuke on Thursday, saying “Negative Nick” had divided Republicans with his “dirty campaign” and should drop out of the race. Begich comes from a family of prominent Democrats, but said he was a lifelong Republican.

This was the first ranked statewide election in Alaska. Proponents of ranked voting say it encourages candidates to run positive campaigns to win support beyond their traditional bases. Scott Kendall, who helped draft the 2020 voter-passed ballot measure that scrapped party primaries and instituted preferential voting in the general election, said Begich “led a clinic on how to perform poorly in of 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 the first choice votes, meaning he was eliminated. Voters who ranked him first had their votes count for their next choice. Of Begich voters who ranked a second candidate, about 36% chose Peltola and 64% chose Palin, according to preliminary figures.

Peltola said she’s “very excited to be working for Alaskans” over the next few months, but also “very determined to stay focused on the campaign for the two-year seat and really focused on November.”

She acknowledged the historic nature of her win, which Peltola said on Wednesday was “still sinking in,” but said it was “much more than my ethnicity or my gender.” Peltola will also be the first woman to hold the seat of Alaska’s House.

Alaska is a diverse state, she noted, and “we really need to focus on everyone working together to overcome our challenges.”

Peltola served five terms at Alaska House, ending in 2009, and most recently worked for a commission to replenish the salmon resources of the Kuskokwim River. Her time in the legislature overlapped with Palin’s time as governor, and the two were cordial.

Peltola said she started fishing as a child with her father. The self-proclaimed salmon advocate said she was motivated to run for the U.S. House by the environmental issues facing Alaska and wanted to bring attention to ocean productivity issues and of food insecurity. She expressed concern about low salmon returns.

While the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Peltola said she wanted to be “an advocate for safe and legal abortions.”

Peltola said any additional rentals in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “should continue as long as there is support from the people who live there and protections are in place for our natural resources, including caribou.”

Joe Nelson, chairman of the board of directors of Sealaska, an Alaska Native society, said Peltola understands the importance of a subsistence lifestyle – living off the land and harvesting fish, berries and wildlife. Sealaska had encouraged voters to support Peltola and hailed her victory on Wednesday as a “historic moment”.

Nelson, who is also Peltola’s ex-husband, said it was ‘long overdue’ to have an Alaska Native in Congress and said more Indigenous voices in leadership roles were needed. .

Andrew Halcro, a Republican, said he ranked Peltola first in the special election and written Republican candidate Tara Sweeney second. Halcro and Peltola served in the state legislature together, he from Anchorage and Peltola from the rural community of Bethel. He said he was a ‘know-nothing guy’ who made ‘unfortunate comments’ about a program that provides economic relief to communities where electricity costs can be much higher than in more urban areas .

He said it was at a time when the ‘urban/rural divide was raging’ in the Legislative Assembly and Peltola came to his office saying, ‘Hey, if you’re interested, I’d be happy to fill you in on this subject. »

Peltola “was really one of the rural legislators in my freshman year who really changed my view of rural Alaska and really helped me educate myself about the challenges they face,” he said.

Peltola’s supporters say she has a knack for connecting with people. Peltola said one thing she learned during the campaign that she hopes to build on is “how much we all need positivity, hope and inspiration”.

Beth Kerttula, a Democrat who served in the Legislative Assembly with Peltola, said Peltola’s victory was 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 this,” she said of Peltola’s win. “But it wasn’t a mistake. People believed in Mary.

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