In early November, Mary Peltola had just won her second election in a little over two months. This feat of endurance saw her crisscross Alaska for the better part of a year to defeat her Republican opponents first in a special election, and then in a general, for a House seat that had been solidly red for nearly 50 years.
Then, when the last race had finally been won, she fell ill.
“I got very, very sick. My daughter came from boarding school on election night and brought with her this very strong strain of a cold slash flu. My family and the whole campaign team and I spent a few days being knocked flat,” she told The Independent by phone.
It was unfortunate timing for Peltola, who was preparing for her first full term in Congress, but it also served as a timely reminder of why she ran in the first place.
The issue of paid sick leave was coming up for a vote in the House, just a short time after she had made use of her own paid leave to recover. The Biden administration asked Democrats to support a bill to impose on railroad workers a bargaining deal it had brokered. Crucial, the deal did not include paid sick leave, one of their key demands.
“It’s part of the reason this paid sick leave issue, and sick leave at all among freight rail workers, has resonated so strongly with me,” she said of her own benefits. “I just feel very strongly that having the ability to take sick days when they’re needed is a basic human right and a quality of life issue, especially during what has been labelled a triple pandemic.”
She was one of only eight House Democrats to vote against the deal, defying the White House in one of her first major votes. It may be a sign of things to come.
Peltola gained nationwide attention and a significant constituency of Alaskans for an insurgent campaign centered around — among other things — fish. Her slogan of “Pro-fish. Pro-choice. Pro-worker" set her apart from Democrats around the country.
Her campaign stood out in other ways, too. Despite running against former vice presidential candidate and reality TV star Sarah Palin, a candidate with years of political baggage, she refused to go on the attack. Their campaign was a friendly affair and the two of them exchanged well wishes and tips by text. Even the debate was amicable.
The novelty of Peltola’s approach to campaigning is partly a feature of Alaskan politics, where civility and independence are prized — the latter is especially true for a Democrat in a deep red state. It is also down to her personality. Her vote against the Democratic leadership was a measure of both.
“It was not pleasant, especially for me,” she said of her vote against the White House whip. “I do not like confrontation, so it’s curious that I would choose to want to work in Congress. But the thing is, working on the railroad is a very dangerous and treacherous type of work. It’s physical labour, and you need all your wits about you. When I’m not feeling well, I do not have my wits about me and I tend to be clumsy and not as alert. And I think that that becomes a life and death situation.”
Peltola told the White House ahead of time that she would be voting against the bill, and said the response was amicable. It was a small irony that the first big demonstration of her independence from the Democratic Party line — something that she had campaigned in deep red Alaska —was from the left, on workers’ rights.
“The leadership has been very good to me and they recognise that I won a unique election in a unique state. And there is a recognition that I am not going to be able to be toeing the party line on every vote, every time,” Peltola said.
Going forward, she said that she intended to fulfill the promise of her campaign to work with Republicans in Congress, and is already seeing results with the strategy.
“I think that my messaging about working across party lines has resonated with them,” she said. “There is a curiosity and an openness. And some of that is a carryover from Congressman Young’s long-standing and good relationships, deep relationships with members of his party … and their commitment to seeing that good things happen for Alaska.
“And I think that they have such a narrow majority. They are looking for people across Congress who might be easy to work with,” she added.
Since arriving in Washington DC, Peltola, who is the first Alaskan native to serve in the US Congress, still has fish on her mind. Her first priority in the Capitol is passing the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act, an update to federal fishing laws that addresses climate change for the first time and authorises funding to fishing communities that experience economic loss from damaged fisheries — an issue crucial to Alaskans.
The Congresswoman grew up along the Kuskokwim River, where fishing was vital to the local economy and the Native people who live there. The rural southwestern town of Bethel, where she moved to when she was 13, has seen its fishing stocks decline dramatically over the years.
Alaska is one of the most bountiful fishing regions in the world. The industry directly employs some 58,000 people and produces more than $5 billion in economic activity every year, according to Alaska’s Resource Development Council. Salmon represents the vast majority of that industry.
Last year, Peltola testified to the Natural Resources Committee, warning that climate change “poses a real and ongoing threat to our way of life and fisheries” in Alaska. Today, she sits on the committee.
She told The Independent that passing the updated federal fishing law “was the reason I ran for office to begin with” and added she would seek to build bridges with other lawmakers from states facing similar issues.
Her staff did not rule out the possibility of a pro-fish caucus somewhere down the line.