In heavy orange rain gear, Congresswoman Mary Peltola mingled with guests on the deck of the Tenacious, a charter boat in Seward. Even before the boat left the Seward harbor, the skipper warned of significant swells.
“Is everybody using Dramamine?” Peltola asked the guests, some of whom had paid thousands of dollars to be there. “I would take it now.”
Peltola, a Democrat, has followed in the footsteps of her Republican predecessor, Don Young, on multiple policy matters, and this year she even stepped in to headline her predecessor’s marquee charity fundraiser.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has Waterfall, her VIP fishing tournament in Southeast, raising money for cancer care. The late Sen. Ted Stevens had the Kenai Classic, supporting the river. And now Peltola is taking on the Lu Young Children’s Fund Fishing Invitational, a three-day fishing tournament.
The charity is named for Don Young’s first wife. When he died last year, the event was canceled. It was revived this year with a new twist: “Fish with Mary.”
“I wanted to keep that going,” Peltola said. “I knew Lu Young. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Lu Young. And it’s a great cause.”
But supporting the cause is only one reason to participate.
Charitable fundraisers like these unite lobbyists, their clients and other well-connected folks with a member of Congress, often for hours at a time. They can share laughs in the confined quarters of a golf cart or fishing boat.
It can look like insiders buying access, currying favor with people who can help them. But Peltola says that’s not what she sees.
“What I have found is that people who are professional lobbyists, they tend not to hit you up in contexts like this because they want you to have fun,” she said. “And then when they’re in your office, you’ll have had that shared experience.”
Participants may remain on opposite sides of an issue, but the time together allows for the discovery of common interests and a chance to see adversaries as people and not enemies.
Congressman Jared Huffman, a progressive Democrat from California, came to the Seward event a few years ago, at the invitation of Don Young. The two often sparred in the House Resources Committee over environmental matters.
“I thought it was a good idea to say yes, and come to his fishing tournament and he appreciated it,” Huffman said. “And it definitely contributed to the good relationship we had.”
And that’s how Huffman, from one of the bluest districts in California, came to spend a day on a boat with Young and Karl Rove, Republican former White House policy advisor.
It was a weird pairing, Huffman said, but they found common ground.
“Karl obviously is, you know, on the wrong side of my politics. But he’s also a historian and he’s very knowledgeable about Harry Truman,” Huffman said.
It turned out to be Young’s last fishing tournament. This year, Huffman said he came to honor his good relationship with Young, and to help his new Democratic friend, Mary Peltola. He attended a campaign fundraiser for her and other Democrats in Anchorage before traveling to Seward.
Huffman said his campaign paid for his entry, but House Ethics Rules allow U.S. House representatives to accept free tickets and travel to charitable events, like gala dinners and golf tournaments. And the attendance of lawmakers tends to boost ticket sales.
“Definitely having members of Congress come up as a big draw for people to come, come see them and talk to them and fish with them,” said Alex Ortiz, who was Young’s chief of staff, then Peltola’s and now is a lobbyist.
He helped coordinate the invitational this year, and his D.C.-based firm was a sponsor of both the tournament and the associated dinner at a Seward restaurant. Two of his clients attended, representing telecom company Quintillion and Graphite One, which hopes to develop a mine on the Seward Peninsula.
While politicians may be the draw, Ortiz says the tournament has never been about business or politics.
“Well, certainly people love to talk about everything (but) there’s definitely no overarching objective,” he said.
No Republican lawmakers came to Fish with Mary. Ortiz is hoping for more of a mix next year.
Mac McHale, president of the telecom company Quintillion, said the whole point is to help Alaska children in need, and meeting members of Congress is secondary.
“If you can, you know, establish a relationship there while doing good for the community, that’s a … a double bonus,” McHale said.
Over the past decade, the Lu Young Children’s Fund has netted up to $50,000 from the annual tournament, which is typically its only source of revenue. Some years it cost more than it raised.
The nonprofit makes a total of $4,000 in grants in an average year, typically to Camp Fire Alaska, sometimes to Covenant House and Hope Community Resources.
The fund had savings of $135,000 by the end of 2021, the latest year for which public documents are available.
In addition to all the other motives mingling at the fundraiser: fishing. That can be a mixed bag. The first day of the 2023 tournament, everybody caught their limit for salmon and halibut. The next, rough seas tossed the boats around and the captains returned to the harbor before anyone could wet a line.