Democrat Mary Peltola is set to make history as the first Alaska Native in Congress – while thwarting the attempted political comeback of former Gov. Sarah Palin – by winning a special House election, according to unofficial ranked-choice voting results released Wednesday by the state Division of Elections.
Her unlikely bid for the House was unique to Alaska, where political relationships span decades and voters who have elected independents and write-in candidates to major offices have what Peltola calls a “libertarian bent” that at times defies the partisan label the state has earned by voting consistently for Republican presidential candidates.
She has a warm relationship with Palin, who once gave her family’s backyard trampoline to Peltola’s family, and she once spent Thanksgiving with the late Rep. Don Young, an old teaching colleague and hunting buddy of her father’s whose former seat she and Palin sought to fill for the remainder of 2022. Young died in March after representing Alaska in the House for 49 years.
Despite Peltola’s victory on Wednesday, she and Palin will face off again in November to fill the state’s lone House seat for the next full term.
Peltola, who turned 49 on Wednesday, is the daughter of a Yup’ik mother and a Nebraskan father who had moved north to teach school and later became a bush pilot.
She had spent a decade in Alaska’s House of Representatives, from 1999 to 2009, where she chaired the bipartisan “bush” caucus of rural lawmakers and overlapped with Palin, her leading opponent in the special congressional race, who was governor from late 2006 through mid-2009. Peltola later became a Bethel City Council member, a lobbyist and a salmon advocate as the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
The Yup’ik people, she said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday ahead of the ranked choice tabulation, are “holistic” thinkers.
“Everything is interconnected,” Peltola said. “When we talk about community wellness, we talk about the entire community. I do think of things in very broad terms, and I do recognize that in Alaska, even though we have a huge footprint, we are a very small in numbers population, and we are all related.”
She’s now set to fill the remaining months of the term started by Young – who, before becoming the longest-serving Republican congressman in US history, was a close friend of her father.
The two were both teachers in Fort Yukon – Peltola’s father taught 8th grade while Young taught 4th grade – and were hunting buddies. Once, in the 1960s, Peltola said, the two men bought a bulldozer together and took 12-hour shifts fighting a wildfire.
Each time Young saw Peltola, he told her to razz her father with a story about him not bringing the antlers back from a moose hunting trip.
After a strong commercial fishing year, Peltola’s father sent her to a private boarding school near Allentown, Pennsylvania, for her sophomore year of high school. Her family couldn’t afford flights home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, she said, so her father called his old friend Young and asked if Peltola could spend Thanksgiving with his