‘I’m here to represent all Alaskans’: A close-up look at Mary Peltola’s swearing-in

two people hug in a crowd
Alaska U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola and Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski hug after Peltola speaks on the House floor on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (U.S. House livestream)

Alaska again has a voice in the U.S. House of Representatives, as of Tuesday afternoon, when Congresswoman Mary Peltola was sworn in on the House floor to replace the late Rep. Don Young.

Peltola stood with two other winners of special elections in New York state as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi administered the oath of office. Then her family, friends, fellow representatives and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan applauded.

Alaska Public Media Washington Correspondent Liz Ruskin was there, too.

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Casey Grove: Liz, how did it go?

Liz Ruskin: Well, it was pretty rousing. And I kind of feel sorry for the other two new Congress members from New York because they were really in Peltola’s shadow tonight. She gave a speech on the House floor. And here’s what she said:

Mary Peltola: I am humbled and deeply honored to be the first Alaska Native elected to this body, the first woman to hold Alaska’s House seat. But to be clear, I’m here to represent all Alaskans. I will work every day to make all Alaskans proud that they have entrusted me to carry their voices here.

CG: Alaska’s U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan were there. I think I heard a baby in the background too. Who was that baby and who else was there?

LR: Well, first of all, I’d like to say when Senator Murkowski walked into the chamber before this event started, she gave Peltola big full-on hugs. It was really a warm greeting. The baby was probably one of Peltola’s two grandchildren who attended. In the gallery, she had seven children, including three stepchildren, two grandchildren, two sisters, and her husband, Gene Peltola. And also there were, when people stood in the gallery to cheer, you could see that a lot of them were wearing kuspuks. And one of them was Ana Hoffman, she’s the co-chair of Alaska Federation of Natives. She’s also a childhood friend of Mary’s, they went to high school together in Bethel. And here’s what she said afterwards:

Ana Hoffman: It feels like Mary is bringing a completeness to the U.S. Congress that has been missing. She is bringing Alaska Native languages here. It really – just as she was speaking, that thought that kept coming into my mind is, “The people’s House.”

CG: Jumping back to what Mary Peltola had said on the House floor, she acknowledges that she has made history here as the first woman to represent Alaska in the House and the first Alaska Native person ever to be elected to Congress. But Liz, it seems like she doesn’t want people to just focus on that, does it?

LR: Right, exactly. That’s what she says. She says she’s more than her ethnicities. She often reminds people that while her mother is Yup’ik and she is a proud Yup’ik person, that her father was a white schoolteacher from Nebraska and that she is also half white.

CG: Well, obviously, it’s a long way from Alaska to Washington, D.C. and Mary Peltola has only been there for a couple of days, right? What else has she been up to since arriving in D.C.?

LR: Well, she made an announcement about her new staff. She’s hired Don Young’s chief of staff as her own. That’s really unusual for Capitol Hill, because staff usually stick with one party. It’s very unusual for a staff member to leave a Republican office and go to a Democratic office – that’s very rare on Capitol Hill. She has been getting the keys to her office, she has all her family here for a big event. And I’m sure that took a lot of time. Also, by the way, the last I spoke with her she was staying in an Airbnb now and not quite sure where she was going to live for the rest of the month.

CG: Yeah, that’s something to figure out for sure. You mentioned the seven children that she had and the two grandchildren that were there. I noticed in that ceremonial swearing-in that happened after the official one she was kind of joking, because they all gathered around for a photo and she said, “I hope you brought your panoramic lenses.”

LR: Right, it was a very big crowd.

CG: Well, in maybe a more serious question, what has Peltola said about her priorities now that she’s taken office?

LR: She says that she’s very much aware that she is serving out the remainder of Congressman Don Young’s term and she wants to look at the legislation that he had in the hopper and see if she can get those bills passed. She’s also interested in passing (Young’s planned revisions to) the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the main fisheries law for the country. She says negotiations were fruitful between Don Young and the Democrat in charge of the subcommittee and she wants to continue that.

Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts.

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