Look at photos of Mary Peltola during her campaign for Congress last year and you’ll often see a tall fellow with a dark, bushy beard at her side. That’s Anton McParland. He was Peltola’s campaign manager. He’s now also her chief of staff.
At Peltola’s congressional office in Washington, D.C., McParland’s vibe is more camp counselor than boss. He jokes with the staff about how they might get away with a party on the flat roof outside their office window. He giggles.
“Sorry. I’m in a little bit of a post-lunch like stupor,” he said. “I don’t often eat food during the day … It makes me sleepy.”
McParland soldiers on. He is 35, 6 feet, 4 inches tall and thin. He projects a wide-eyed presence that’s equal parts yogi and curious pre-schooler.
He’s in a unique position: As both the chief of Peltola’s congressional staff and the person running her campaign, no one has more opportunity to set the agenda for Alaska’s sole member of the U.S. House. And yet he was unknown in Alaska, and to Peltola, before last year.
Now, he considers her “one of my best friends in life.”
“We spent 80% of the campaign, like, traveling between events or on planes making stupid jokes to each other,” McParland said. “We mesh really well.”
McParland joined Peltola’s campaign a few weeks before the August special general election. It was an unusual employment choice for both of them. Peltola needed to show that she could appeal to Alaska moderates and not turn off Republicans. McParland had no prior connection to Alaska. He’d just run a campaign in Illinois of a further-left Democrat who lost in the primary.
But McParland answered Peltola’s help-wanted posting, and he had a valuable attribute: union experience.
That was key for Peltola because she had a big fence to mend. As a state legislator in 2005, Peltola had voted to gut teacher retirement. She says it was the worst vote she made and she strives to make up for it.
McParland had worked on union campaigns in Oregon and Nevada.
“She wanted someone that was comfortable with labor, that spoke labor, that could earnestly have those conversations with the community,” he said. “I think that’s kind of like the story that we told ourselves.”
The truth is, he says, they just like each other, from the first Zoom interview.
Peltola admires his work ethic, his ability to have “100 things going at once,” and says they think alike.
“We can read each other’s mind. Yeah, that helps,” she said. “And I think we both really like people and enjoy this work and find the humor in every situation.”
McParland was raised in rural Wisconsin. His family ran a butcher shop and catering company. He went to high school in Las Vegas and worked in food service, where he says he first felt the power of organized labor.
His dual jobs for Peltola does raise eyebrows. A big chunk of the House ethics manual is dedicated to creating a wall separating a congressional office from the representative’s re-election campaign. But the ethics rules allow a congressional staffer to work in their off-duty hours on re-election campaigns. So McParland does both jobs, and he earns a paycheck from each.
Over the first three months of this year, he made $50,000 from the combined jobs, public records show. (During those months, he was deputy chief of Peltola’s office. He assumed the chief job at the end of May.)
Peltola’s deputy campaign manager, Elisa Devlin, is a Bernie Sanders-inspired progressive who also worked as McParland’s deputy on a campaign in suburban Chicago. Her allies there might be aghast at some of Peltola’s positions – against a gun control regulation, for Arctic oil development. Devlin said she accepts Peltola’s positions because Alaska’s politics are unique.
“I think that it is easy for people to pass judgment, but there’s a lot of complexity. And there are a lot of factors at play,” Devlin said. “And she’s really just doing what she thinks is best. And I trust her gut. And I trust Anton to give her that support.”
McParland is prone to describing people and places as “delightful.” Delight is his default setting. But he says he had to work at that after a medical crisis five years ago. He has recurring brain tumors. He’s had two strokes. And the medication, he says, made him feel worse than the disease.
“The complicated convolutedness of it all was really frustrating. I was very disappointed and angry about it for a couple of years,” he said. “I came out of that very happy and joyful. Like kind of harkening back to my earlier life. So I prefer to just enjoy my life on a regular basis.”
He looks the picture of health and says he tries not to concentrate on his medical condition.
Which leaves room for other pursuits. He’s a devoted uncle, and while he was running Peltola’s campaign last year he became heavily involved in the campaign of a middle-schooler in Utah, a close family friend named Cole. McParland can still sound outraged when he explains that Cole’s opponent dispensed candy, even though it violated class election rules.
So McParland went all in. He developed Cole’s campaign graphics and arranged celebrity skateboarder endorsements.
McParland’s sister, Leisha, said he’d call late at night during campaign season, sometimes to brainstorm an Alaska issue, sometimes to try out slogans for Cole’s campaign.
“Look, Anton only takes on a project at 150%,” Leisha McParland said. “And so yes, he absolutely was running – with equal passion and focus and professional expertise – the campaign’s of a middle school class president candidate, and candidate Mary Peltola.”
Peltola says, in the heat of her own race, she was aware that her campaign manager was moonlighting for a sixth-grader. She called it “a wonderful distraction” and in character for the Anton McParland she knows – an engaged multi-tasker who aims to stay light at heart.
And yes: like Peltola, Cole won his race.