Peltola’s superpower: US House nominee disarms with unexpected niceness

A woman with a red and blue jacket on drinking coffee
U.S. House candidate Mary Peltola discusses new ideas with her campaign team at a downtown Anchorage coffee shop on Wednesday. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

One of the nominees in the special U.S. House is famous worldwide. Another bears the name of a former Alaska congressman and has a former U.S. senator for an uncle.

Then there’s Democrat Mary Peltola.

She surprised a lot of political observers with a fourth-place finish in the June primary, high enough to put her name on the special general ballot.

A poll by Alaska Survey Research in early May showed a majority of Alaskans did not know who Peltola was. If she’s pulled herself out of statewide obscurity, it’s likely due to her dominant personality trait: niceness. 

That demeanor was on display at a candidate meet-and-greet in an Anchorage park in May. There were balloons, streamers and a billboard with Peltola’s face on it — but hardly anyone for her to meet or greet. At the advertised start time, maybe five people were there.

If Peltola considered it a bust, she didn’t show it. She approached two undecided voters at a picnic table and cheerfully answered their every question.

“I’m really glad you’re here,” she said. “And I do have a nuanced opinion on energy. I think a lot of rural Alaskans do. For me, one of the most important aspects of going forward with the project is social license to operate.”

Peltola, a former state legislator from Bethel, is a 48-year-old Democrat, and she’s undeniably nice. It’s almost weird in the competitive environment of a campaign.

Former Republican legislator Tom Anderson gushed praise for her when she appeared on his radio show June 22. He told his right-of-center audience he was happy when Peltola filed to run.

“And I thought, ‘Good for her,’” Anderson said. “Pat, pat on the head. ‘Give me a hug. You’re so sweet. You’re so smart. You’re not going to get in the top 4. But I’m proud of you. I like you.’ Other people said that, too. Well, she did! She’s No. 3!” 

(Peltola finished fourth, but third-place finisher Al Gross dropped out of the race.)

Peltola says both sides of her family tree, the Yup’iit and the Nebraskans, emphasized kindness. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Republican media consultant Art Hackney called Peltola’s finish in the primary especially remarkable because she spent so little money — less than $40,000 by May 22, the last day of the reporting period.

“I give the Peltola team huge marks for ending up where they’re at,” he said, shortly after the special primary. He credited the campaign professionals at Ship Creek Group, but he said it wouldn’t have worked if they didn’t have a compelling candidate.

“I just think Mary’s an impressive person,” Hackney said.

Peltola said the people who raised her, both the Yup’iit and the Nebraskans, would be pleased to hear of her reputation for niceness.

“The region where I’m from, there is a big premium on being respectful, on not using inflammatory language or harsh tones, not speaking to things that you haven’t seen with your own eyes or heard with your own ears, you know, hearsay, not gossiping,” Peltola said. “I think that those are really good principles to live by.”

Peltola grew up in Bethel and smaller Kuskokwim river communities. Her mom, LizAnn Williams, is originally from Kwethluk. Her dad, Ward Sattler, was a Bush pilot and educator who has moved back to his home state of Nebraska. 

Peltola has seven children: four of her own and three stepchildren with her husband, Gene “Buzzy” Peltola, who is the top Alaska official in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

She was just 24 when, as Mary Sattler, she was elected to the Alaska Legislature, beating incumbent Ivan Ivan in 1998.

“I don’t want to say anything harsh about Ivan, but at that time, I did feel that there were moments when the district needed an advocate,” she said.

In her decade in the Legislature, she led the Bush Caucus, a group of rural legislators who could unite to achieve their priorities.

Republican Rick Halford was president of the Senate during Peltola’s decade in office. The Bush Caucus was a force to negotiate with, he said, particularly as the session came to a close.

“When you had something that somebody else had to have, there was usually something that the Bush had to have that got matched up with it. And both got done,” Halford said.

Andrew Halcro saw Peltola in action in 1999 when he was a freshman Republican in the House and she (known then by her first married name, Kapsner) was a freshman Democrat.

“She was never bitter. She was never angry. She was never partisan,” Halcro said. “She just wanted to get, you know, really good policy done. And I think that is her persona.”

Halcro roused anger early that first year with a floor speech about weaning rural Alaska off Power Cost Equalization, a state program that helps offset high energy bills in remote communities. He likened the subsidy to putting children in Velcro shoes rather than teaching them to tie their laces. 

He regrets it now.

“It’s completely ignorant from a guy from Sand Lake to show up in Juneau and start lecturing on what rural Alaska needs or doesn’t need,” he said.

Peltola might’ve taken umbrage and written him off. But within hours, Halcro said, she was at his office door, asking if she could offer him a different perspective on Power Cost Equalization. She seemed to be investing in him, trying to educate the new generation of Republican legislators, he said. Now, Halcro sees PCE as she does — a program that balances the scales, since the state spent hundreds of millions of dollars on power projects for urban Alaska.

“I think with Mary Peltola, you should never, ever misconstrue kindness for somebody who’s not going to stand up for what she believes in,” Halcro said.

Peltola said she can be tough. She recalled a few “screaming matches” with other legislators. But she can also tell of small gestures that turned adversaries into political friends. Friendship is more effective, she said.

“It’s very easy for things to get personal and defensive and inflammatory really quickly, and then everything breaks down,” Peltola said. “In order to make the progress that we need in Alaska, in order to make the right decisions, we have to have a lower blood pressure. We have to respect all the people in the conversation at the table, or else we’re just not going to be productive.”

Rival candidate Sarah Palin, the world-famous former governor and vice presidential candidate, has taken notice. Palin jumped in too soon at a recent candidate forum, launching into a question meant for Peltola. Peltola signaled to the moderator it was OK and touched Palin on the shoulder to encourage her.

Palin melted a little.

“See how polite she is?” Palin said to the audience. “That’s how it should be in politics.”

Peltola just smiled and shrugged, as though to say, “Think nothing of it.”

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her Read more about Lizhere.

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