Peltola goes home to the Kuskokwim, still waiting to hear if she’s the first Alaska Native elected to Congress

woman at helm of boat
Mary Peltola has been fishing on the Kuskokwim since she was a child. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Democrat Mary Peltola has been campaigning all summer to be Alaska’s representative in the U.S. House. She finally went home to Bethel last week and couldn’t wait to get out on the river.

But she had a camera crew with her and the weather was bad, so she was stuck inside, shooting campaign ads in her living room. 

“It’s good fishing weather, but it’s not great filming weather. I think there’s some concern that equipment isn’t damaged,” she said. “Yeah, it’s pretty treacherous out there. South wind storms are no fun and you get a lot of whitecaps.”

Peltola, wearing a gray blazer and more make-up than she’s used to, sat back down under the bright lights and took direction from her media consultant and cameraman.

Peltola may already have won election to the U.S. House. Alaskans will learn the results of the Aug. 16 special election on Wednesday, when the ranked choice ballots are tallied. Republican Sarah Palin, the former governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee, is in a good position to win once the second-choices are counted. But for now, Alaska’s right-wing icon is trailing by almost 9 percentage points

If Peltola wins, she’d be the first Alaska Native ever elected to Congress. Right now, all she wants to do is fish.

By afternoon, the wind and rain have let up. The tide is favorable. Peltola happily threw off her blazer and put on bulky layers, topped with rain gear. She began throwing things in her aluminum skiff — buckets, an anchor, waterproof gloves. 

“Everyone has a float coat?” she called out.

She grew up in Bethel, and in other communities in the Kuskokwim Delta. She’s pulled salmon from this river since she was a child. But the main goal of this voyage is video. Because whatever the outcome of the special election, Peltola will also be on the ballot in November. She needs TV ads. It makes for an awkward fishing trip.

A camera crew documents Mary Peltola fishing. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

“I want to put this inside of here, just to have a mic on you,” says the sound guy, coming at her with a wireless microphone he wants to clip inside her rain gear. 

“Right this minute?” she asks.

She thanks him for holding off until they’re closer to fishing.

There’s a more serious problem with this fishing trip: There are no fish. The silvers didn’t show up in numbers sufficient to meet subsistence needs. That’s after another year of dismal chum and king returns.

It used to be, she said, that she would fear getting too many fish. She and her husband, Buzzy Peltola, figure they can cut and clean about 70 fish a day. In summers like this one, the daily harvest might be just a handful of salmon. If the river is open to any kind of fishing at all.

This is a tragedy beyond words for this salmon-based region. Peltola has spent the past five years of her career on it, as director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Protecting salmon is a major campaign theme. 

woman sits in the middle of a living room, in front of a camera on a tripod.
With a TV crew and a media consultant, Peltola filmed a TV spot in her Bethel home. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Peltola turns 49 this week. Born Mary Sattler, she’s the daughter of a Yup’ik mom and a Nebraskan dad who went north to teach school and later became a Bush pilot. 

As she drives her skiff through the braids of the Kuskokwim, she points out the bank where her great-grandparents lived, and on the other side, where her mother was born, during berry-picking season.

“Yeah, this is kind of the center of my universe,” she said, at the mouth of a tributary called the Gweek. “Just because my uncles taught me exactly where to put the net to catch certain kinds of fish.”

Scientists aren’t sure why the salmon aren’t returning to this river. Climate change and ocean acidification are factors. Peltola also attributes it to the thousands of salmon caught by accident by trawlers targeting pollock.

(The At-Sea Processors Association, which represents some of the largest factory trawlers, says it’s taking steps to limit bycatch, but says larger factors are to blame.)

Non-salmon producing tributaries of the Kuskokwim are open to fishing. So, primarily for the camera, Peltola feeds a small set net into the water. Sometimes salmon make a wrong turn. But when she checks the net later, it’s empty.

“I stay hopeful right until the end, because sometimes you get lucky, right at the end meshes,” she said.

Peltola went away to college, but at age 24 ran for state House and beat an incumbent. She stayed in office for a decade, overlapping with then-Gov. Sarah Palin. They bonded in the state Capitol, as two pregnant moms in office. When Palin left Juneau for the campaign trail, Peltola said, she bequeathed her backyard trampoline to Peltola.

Palin didn’t respond to interview requests. 

She vilifies Democrats in general, but recently called Peltola a “sweetheart.” 

The lack of rivalry goes both ways.

“I think she’s great,” Peltola said.

That politeness is on-brand for her. In the Legislature, Peltola was known for uncommon kindness.

“She was never bitter. She was never angry. She was never partisan,” Andrew Halcro said. He and Peltola were freshman legislators in 1999. As a Republican representing the Sand Lake area of Anchorage, he ignited statewide fury with a speech he now regrets. He likened Bush residents to children who don’t learn to tie their laces because the state keeps sending Velcro shoes.

A lot of Alaskans wrote Halcro off as a racist.

But within hours, he said, Peltola was at his office door, asking if she could offer a different perspective on Power Cost Equalization, the rural energy subsidy he had derided. He came to see the program as she does, as a matter of equity for regions that didn’t benefit from expensive hydroelectric projects the state funded.

“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.

Bev Hoffman of Bethel has known Peltola her whole life and admires her. 

“She is nice. But she is so tough,” Hoffman said.

Bev Hoffman says Peltola is no pushover: “She is nice. But she is so tough.” (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

They fought together on fish issues, and to get a swimming pool for Bethel, where drownings were common because few people learned to swim. They were at odds for six years, when Peltola worked as manager of community development and sustainability for Donlin Gold, a mine project Peltola no longer supports. 

Hoffman said Peltola has a way of listening intently and drawing people of opposing views together. 

“She doesn’t yell at people,” Hoffman said.

Peltola said yelling isn’t effective. She credits her upbringing and her mentors for her political style. 

“The region where I’m from, there is a big premium on being respectful, on not using inflammatory language or harsh tones,” she said.

Peltola believes in the power of small gestures. She said she once defused an urban Republican legislator, just by pointing out that he – being decades her senior – had lived more years in Alaska than she had. 

She said they got on great after that, and to her, that’s good politics.

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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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