‘In Mary’s house’: Peltola is clear crowd favorite at Alaska Federation of Natives candidate forum

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola meets with supporters at the 2022 Alaska Federation of Natives conference on Saturday at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Former Gov. Sarah Palin, one of two Republicans trying to unseat Congresswoman Mary Peltola, said this is the toughest campaign she’s ever fought.

“Because of her – Mary,” Palin said at the Alaska Federation of Natives candidate forum for U.S. House on Saturday. 

A huge cheer arose from the crowd for the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. There was never any question who the crowd favorite was at the AFN convention in Anchorage, which draws thousands from all corners of the state. Attendees waved hand fans with a photo of Peltola’s face on them. From the back of the room, Spenard resident Maar’aq Alice Crow, originally from Peltola’s home region of Bethel, shook a cowbell that resonated throughout the hall at the Dena’ina Center. 

Maar’aq Alice Crow brought her cowbell and her Mary Peltola fan to the U.S. House candidate forum. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)
AFN attendees wave their Mary Peltola fans at the U.S. House candidate forum. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media).

Palin acknowledged the obvious.

“We are in Mary’s house,” Palin said. “I know that and I love her dearly. I’m as proud of her as all of you are. And doggone it … . I just wish she’d convert on over to the other party.”

Palin didn’t show the same warmth for the other Republican on stage with her, Nick Begich III. The friction between Palin and Begich wasn’t obvious Saturday, but it’s been present since the start of the campaign and makes it less likely that either of them can win. If Palin again finishes in second place, as she did in the August special election, she’ll need enough second-place votes from Begich supporters to overtake Peltola’s likely lead.

Republican U.S. House candidate Nick Begich III. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

The three leading candidates, and Fairbanks Libertarian Chris Bye, answered a series of questions of importance to Alaska Natives and rural residents during the 40-minute forum. The candidates’ answers reflected their ideologies.

Begich said one of his top goals is to “make the business case for Alaska.” On a question about disparities in mental health, Begich saw an economic angle.

“We have to make sure that we have job opportunities,” Begich said, “and long-term community development plans, in order for people to know – youth specifically – that they have a career and a purpose and an opportunity to remain as a part of their local community over the long haul.”

Palin also made the link between jobs and mental health. She sprinkled her response with a bit of religion and populism.

Republican U.S. House candidate Sarah Palin after the forum. (Elyssa Loughlin/ Alaska Public Media)

“God created us to work,” she said. “And there are some areas in Alaska where there’s like 90% unemployment, and it makes no sense, because those areas, that’s where we’re exploiting and extracting our natural resources that are getting other people really rich.”

Peltola cited a panoply of contributing factors that she says support mental health: safe housing, education, nutrition, broadband and telehealth care. She cited a treatment program in her region that gets people outdoors and following the seasons.

“And this isn’t just for Alaska Natives,” said Peltola, who often talks about the importance of unity and finding common ground. “This is for everybody. Anybody from around the nation can access this kind of treatment. And what better treatment is there than being in the outdoors and connecting with our wildlife and sharing with our elders?”

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola. (Elyssa Loughlin/ Alaska Public Media)

The forum ended on a lighter note. “Have you had akutaq this week?” the moderator asked, referring to the traditional treat of berries mixed with whipped fat or vegetable shortening. 

“It wasn’t anybody’s birthday. So not this week. No,” said Palin.

“I’ve actually had it three times,” Peltola said, to significant cheering.

Bye joked that Peltola ate his portion. Begich said that he’d had none that week and, to the next question, admitted he hadn’t had muktuk (whale blubber) either.

“I’m an honest politician,” he said.

AFN delegates later officially endorsed Peltola in the U.S. House race.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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