Congresswoman Mary Peltola returned to the Alaska House Chamber Friday and told her former colleagues that their reputation for bipartisanship is a source of awe in the U.S. Capitol.
Peltola said she was at first confused when members of Congress and reporters would ask her about the “Alaska model.” She was happy to learn they were referring to the Legislature’s long experience with bipartisan coalition leadership.
“I think people asked me about this Alaska model because they realize that business as usual in D.C. isn’t working anymore,” she said. “Slowly and surely, the partisan rancor from recent years is losing its appeal. People are remembering that politics first and foremost should be about fixing things and not just launching cable news careers or racking up retweets.”
This was Peltola’s first address to state lawmakers since becoming the only Alaska Native person elected to the U.S. House. The speech was an opportunity to shape the image she wants to convey statewide as the newest member of the state’s congressional delegation.
Peltola is a moderate Democrat in a U.S. House now led by Republicans. Bipartisanship is her motto, and this speech was on-brand. She kept it to 16 minutes – much shorter than the U.S. senators usually run – and devoted a lot of that time to the value of working across the aisle.
She passed along wisdom she said she learned watching former Alaska House Speaker Ben Grussendorf when he was negotiating the final finance bill of the year.
“There were people who wanted, you know, revenge, in these end-of-session deals,” she recounted. “And he said, ‘No, no. Everybody has to save face.’ And I think that’s a real valuable lesson. It really stuck with me as a legislator.”
Peltola served in the Legislature from 1999 to 2009, as a Democrat from Bethel. She helped revive the Bush Caucus, a bloc in the Legislature that pressed for the needs of rural Alaska.
She is also credited with the establishment of “kuspuk Fridays.” Legislators and staff in the state Capitol still wear kuspuks – cotton hooded jackets with front pockets –to mark the end of the work week and give a nod to the Native people of Western Alaska, where kuspuks originate.
After her speech, she told reporters she’d rather be remembered in Juneau for more significant deeds. But she said she’s come to appreciate that kuspuk Fridays have helped change the culture of the Legislature and made rural residents feel welcome.
“I’ve heard stories of people who were scared and terrified to be here, and then felt a lot more comfortable when they saw that everyone had their kuspuk on,” she said. “So I’m thrilled that the tradition continues and to have been a part of it.”
She wore a black and white kuspuk for her address. It was Friday, so some of the lawmakers and staff wore kuspuks, too, including House Speaker Cathy Tilton.
Her predecessor in the U.S. House, the late Don Young, regularly met with legislators individually but passed up invitations to give a formal address.