When Mary Peltola walked up to her new office for the first time on Tuesday, she glanced at a plaque and burst into tears.
Less than two weeks earlier, Peltola won a protracted and crowded special election to become the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. 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 completing the term of Rep. Don Young, a Republican who held the seat for nearly 50 years and 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. The election was the first in Alaska to use ranked-choice voting, a system that allows voters to rank the candidates in their order of preference. But her days of campaigning are far from over. The Alaska Democrat, who still has a general election to win in November, also talked about how she plans to turn her two-month term into a two-year term.
The interview, consisting of two separate conversations, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You won a special election thanks in part to many voters writing you in as their second choice. What do you think your race reveals about the virtues of ranked-choice voting?
I think that it reveals that there is an appetite for middle-of-the-road candidates. I think that moving away from closed partisan primaries will help us elect fewer ideologues who are less entrenched and more capable of compromising, reaching consensus, and building coalitions. I think it shows that such candidates are more palatable even among those who may not have picked someone else as their first choice. That adds value as well.
Alaskans were obviously very familiar with Sarah Palin. What were her vulnerabilities in this race?
Although I like her, she can be a polarizing figure. We had a good working relationship. Her two years as governor coincided with my last two years in the statehouse. But her support was in the 30 percent range, and it was hard for her to get beyond that and tap into folks who are not her supporters.
Palin was begging Nick Begich, another Republican, to drop out of the race so she could consolidate Republican support. Did his presence in the race help you?
Begich is much stronger on public policy, and he has ideas and approaches. I’m not necessarily sure that if we got more [candidates] out of the field, people who ranked him first would necessarily rank Sarah first. What we saw in ranked-choice voting is that there are many Republican votes and many conservative Alaskans who ranked Nick first and me second, or ranked Nick and no one else. I’m not sure necessarily that if one is out of the field, that their votes automatically go to the other.
Tell me about your path to victory in November? How are you going to turn your two-month term into a two-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. At the same time, I think most people are very concerned about the preservation of democracy. We want to have confidence in our elected officials.
How are you appealing to conservative voters?
It’s just showing them that I’m a regular Alaskan. I believe in Second Amendment rights. I believe in women’s reproductive rights and our attachment to freedom. I spent 10 years in the state legislature, where I chaired the Bush Caucus, which was composed of 10 rural members out of 40, and we were typically five Republicans and five Democrats. It did not matter what party we were from, we were all just looking to help Alaskans move forward. We worked hard on K-12 education, university funding, and developing more vocational technical programs and properly funding those programs, and having good public safety. These are not partisan issues.
Alaska is a big hunting state. Would you support an assault weapons ban and universal background checks? These are major priorities of national Democrats.
Of course, I support background checks. I don’t think that that is an infringement on Second Amendment rights. I would like to see the particulars of an assault weapons ban, because they are used in some instances in hunting in Alaska. And they are tied to food security. But right out of the gate, no, I don’t support a complete ban on all assault rifles.
What does it mean to you to be the first Alaska Native elected to Congress?
I am very happy to see that Alaska natives are getting a seat at the table. 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 tiring of Trump and his acolytes?
I think that he does have a very strong base of support, and that is reflective of the fact that there is a universal feeling now of disenfranchisement, of being forgotten, of being ignored. And this now extends to Caucasians and men, and that is not something that should be dismissed. That is a real feeling. It didn’t come out of nowhere. I don’t think that there’s any use in dismissing that. I think that anybody who has those feelings should be validated that those are authentic feelings. We should find a way to make sure everyone feels that they’re being heard.
Do you want Biden to come to Alaska to campaign with you?
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 can think about returning to campaign mode.
Do you think he should run for re-election?
I don’t have an opinion on that right now.
What was your relationship like with Don Young?
My parents were friends with him. My dad taught school together with Don Young in Fort Yukon, a very small community on the Yukon River in the 1960s. They were really good friends. They were hunting buddies. They both had winter trap lines. They bought a bulldozer and took 12-hour shifts fighting a wildfire one summer. 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. I have tremendous respect and admiration for Don and his 49 years of service to our state and his real commitment to our state and the people of our state.
What does it mean to you now to be filling in his shoes as his successor?
It’s daunting. No one will ever be able to fill his shoes.
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