Politics | Alaska Public Media

Mary Peltola, first Alaska Native elected to Congress, will be sworn in today

Peltola is drawing an unusual amount of national media attention as the first Alaska Native elected to Congress, and even more because of her special election win over Republican Sarah Palin.

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Mary Peltola did media interviews Monday in front of the U.S. Capitol. An aide says they're receiving more than 100 media requests a day.
Mary Peltola did media interviews Monday in front of the U.S. Capitol. An aide says they're receiving more than 100 media requests a day. Liz Ruskin | Alaska Public Media

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Democrat Mary Peltola will be sworn in as a member of Congress. But Monday morning she was talking to reporters in front of a locked door to what was Congressman Don Young's office, across the street from the U.S. Capitol.

"I don't have keys yet," she said, between interviews with Time Magazine and CBS. "I'm not officially a member yet, so I am standing here as one of Don's constituents."

Alaskans elected Peltola to fill the remainder of Young's term. Alaska's sole seat in the House has been vacant since he died in March.

Peltola is drawing an unusual amount of national media attention as the first Alaska Native elected to Congress, and even more because of her special election win over Sarah Palin, a former Alaska governor endorsed by former President Donald Trump. She's receiving more than 100 interview requests a day, her new spokesman said.

Mary Peltola did interviews in the doorway of her locked office. Here she spoke to a Time reporter. Aides Josh Wilson and Hector Jimenez, right, share a word.
Mary Peltola did interviews in the doorway of her locked office. Here she spoke to a Time reporter. Aides Josh Wilson and Hector Jimenez, right, share a word. Liz Ruskin | Alaska Public Media

She was surprised to find she was even recognized here on the street.

"There was a young man who said, 'Whoa, did you just win the seat in Alaska?' And so we got a selfie ... it was really sweet," she said.

Her swearing in will be on the House floor at 2:30 p.m. Alaska time on Tuesday. It can be watched here. It will be followed by a ceremonial swearing-in in a reception room off the House floor.

Peltola is in Washington with her seven children (including three step-children), two grandchildren, two sisters and her husband.

The day before the swearing-in was filled with tasks big and small. She had to pick up a special lapel pin that identifies her as a member of the U.S. House, allowing her to waltz past security all over the Capitol. She had to start a series of COVID tests to accept an invitation to the White House to watch President Biden sign a bill Tuesday afternoon.

Plus "a lot of interviews, and I am going to be taking my 16-year-old to make sure that he has a suit that fits," she said.

While she's serving the remainder of Young's term, Peltola will also be campaigning for re-election in November, when she'll be on the ballot with Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, and Libertarian Chris Bye.

Brian Guvenir, a nurse from Anchorage, was delighted to run into Peltola in D.C. 'We're cheering for her so much,' he said.
Brian Guvenir, a nurse from Anchorage, was delighted to run into Peltola in D.C. "We're cheering for her so much," he said. Liz Ruskin | Alaska Public Media

Elated Alaskan Brian Guvenir happened upon Peltola as he was walking up Capitol Hill from the National Mall.

"I came around and I said, 'Oh, there's Mary Peltola!'" said Guvenir, a nurse from Anchorage visiting D.C. while his wife attends a conference here.

Guvenir, an independent, said he voted for Peltola and was impressed with the civil tone she set for her campaign.

"We're cheering for her so much. So much," he said. "I know this is a big task, big responsibility. I know she's somewhat nervous but that's OK. We're cheering her to do this job for all Alaskans."

Peltola also took a moment for a selfie with a pair of Australian tourists.

"God's wisdom on you and your future," Jane Jayes, of Perth, said as they parted.

"I need all the prayers I can get, so thank you so much," Peltola said.

On Monday, she quickly ticked through her to-do list. By the afternoon Peltola had her pin and gained access to her office in the Rayburn House Office Building.

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Transcript :

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For the first time in almost 50 years, the U.S. House has sworn in a new member from Alaska. Democrat Mary Peltola is the first Alaska Native member of Congress. With an emphasis on civility and respect for other candidates, Peltola beat Donald Trump's favorite, Sarah Palin, to win a special election for the state's only House seat. And she'll have to do the same in November to keep it.

Alaska Public Media's Liz Ruskin reports from the U.S. Capitol.

LIZ RUSKIN, BYLINE: Peltola joins a freshman House class that includes brash partisans. She's a different sort. She lowers her voice for media interviews.

MARY PELTOLA: My hope is to take the values of collaboration and peacemaking and those kind of qualities. I hope that I can reflect those.

RUSKIN: As a Yup'ik from rural western Alaska, Peltola says she's been taught to consider community harmony and being part of something larger. She says she's proud of her ethnicities, all of them. She often points out that her dad is a white guy from Nebraska. On the eve of her swearing in, Peltola went on MSNBC and pushed back at a question from host Joy Reid that invoked identity politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PELTOLA: You talk about one group having suffered more than another group, and I think that it's important in America that we're not trying to one-up each other on our level of suffering.

RUSKIN: Peltola likes to say that no American is her enemy. Her radical moderation hasn't dampened enthusiasm for her among Alaskans.

BRIAN GUVENIR: Oh, there's Mary Peltola. I didn't even know she was going to be here and a wonderful surprise. I have just sent a message to my wife. She says, you're so lucky.

RUSKIN: Anchorage resident Brian Guvenir is visiting D.C. and was delighted to run into Peltola in front of the Capitol. He's a big fan of the civility she brought to the campaign.

GUVENIR: We're cheering for her so much, so much. I think this is a big task, big responsibility. I know she's somewhat nervous, but that's OK. That's - we're cheering her to do this job for all Alaskans.

RUSKIN: Peltola is the first person elected under Alaska's new ranked choice voting system. Almost 60% of Alaskans chose one of the two Republicans, Palin or Nick Begich, as their first choice. The new system allows conservatives to avoid splitting their votes by selecting the other Republican as their second choice. But Palin and Begich are in a bitter feud. That could help Peltola win again in November.

For NPR News, I'm Liz Ruskin in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.