The new U.S. House speaker, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, has plenty of attributes a Democrat could dislike: He’s an arch-conservative ally of former President Donald Trump, against abortion and gay marriage, and he led efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. But Alaska’s sole representative in the U.S. House, Congresswoman Mary Peltola, said Johnson’s first address to the Chamber took her by surprise.
“I didn’t hear any sort of hint at tearing other people down,” Peltola said just after the speech. “And that is so welcome right now.”
The installation of speaker Johnson was a win for the right-wing disrupters among the House Republicans. They removed the previous Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy, in part because he cut deals with Democrats. But if they expected their new speaker to sound like a hardliner, that’s not his style. The first thing Johnson did was extend an olive branch to Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.
“I want to thank leader Jeffries. I do look forward to working with you on behalf of the American people,” Johnson said. “I know we see things from very different points of view but I know that in your heart you care about this country and want to do what’s right. So we’re going to find common ground there, all right?”
The speech was more personal and less partisan than most House rhetoric.
“Just hearing one person give an entire speech that was positive and uplifting and talking about shared values — what a good day,” Peltola said.
Johnson’s multiple references to the principles of American democracy did not jibe with his actions in 2020. He has pushed several of Trump’s false claims of election fraud and voted against certifying election results. Peltola said she’s reserving judgment on Johnson as an individual because she doesn’t know him.
“I’m just going to keep an open mind,” she said. “But I certainly am very thankful that we have a speaker, that our nation again has a speaker. It’s so important that America is projecting strength and unity.”
Peltola said Johnson’s message to the Democrats in the Chamber sounded welcoming. And she liked that he recognized the sacrifices that congressional families make.
“He talked about his wife. He talked about his children. I really appreciated him acknowledging that there really aren’t upsides for the children of (Congress) members,” she said. “I think my kids could certainly relate to that.”
Whether Johnson can act on his bipartisan overtures is another question. If he strays from his side of the aisle, right-wing Republican could oust him just as they did his predecessor.