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Who is Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native in Congress?

The Democrat beat Sarah Palin to win the special election to fill out the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s term

Democrat Mary Peltola celebrates after results are announced for the special election in which she won the race for Alaska's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday in Anchorage. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News/AP)

Mary Peltola is a Democrat who as a child campaigned with her father and his friend, the state’s longtime Republican congressman. Later, she helped reelect a Republican senator. And she’s friendly with Sarah Palin, the state’s former governor who popularized the kind of combative, anti-establishment politics that propelled Donald Trump to the White House.

“She is progressive, especially socially,” Lindsay Kavanaugh, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, said of Peltola. “She is an Alaska Democrat,” and “probably, compared to a Lower 48 Democrat, she is a little more moderate.”

Peltola defeats Palin in Alaska House special election

Peltola scored a stunning upset Wednesday, winning a special election for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat by defeating Palin (R) and Nick Begich III (R), a business executive and familiar name in state politics. When she is sworn in, Peltola will make history as the state’s first woman in the House, the first Alaska Native — she is Yup’ik — and the first Democrat to hold the seat in a half-century.

The win came on her 49th birthday, which she called a “GOOD DAY” in a tweet right after the state elections division released preliminary results from its new ranked-choice voting system.

“It is overwhelming. And it’s a very good feeling. I’m very grateful Alaskans have put their trust in me,” Peltola said in an interview with The Washington Post at the office of her campaign consultants shortly after her victory. She had to break away in the middle of the conversation to take a call from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “I will be immediately going to work.”

Democrat Mary Peltola won the special election for Alaska‘s lone House seat, defeating former vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin. (Video: Libby Casey, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Peltola also spoke Wednesday night with President Biden, who “congratulated her for her historic victory and “wished her a very happy birthday,” according to a statement from the White House on Thursday.

Peltola will serve the remaining four months of the term of Rep. Don Young (R), the longest-serving Republican in Congress, who died in March at age 88. She is also a candidate in the November election for the full two-year term to replace Young.

Peltola was born in 1973 — the year Young was first elected to the House — and raised in rural parts of the state. Her father and Young were close, and she would tag along when her father would campaign for Young.

She studied early education at the University of Northern Colorado and in the summers worked as a herring and salmon technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

In 1996, Peltola interned at the state legislature and later that year ran for a seat to represent the Bethel region, a major hub in the western part of the state. “I felt like I failed forward, just losing by 56 votes,” she later said during an interview on a local podcast, “Coffee and Quaq.” “It’s really a good thing I didn’t win that time around.”

After losing, Peltola then worked as a reporter, sharpening her sense that parts of Alaska were underrepresented. “As rural people, we oftentimes have to interpret our news through an urban lens, through urban journalists,” she said on the podcast.

In 1998, Peltola ran again for the state legislature and won. She spent 10 years in the legislature, the last few of those years overlapping the period when Palin was in the governor’s mansion.

In the legislature, Peltola helped build the Bush Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers representing rural parts of the state. She developed a reputation for working across the aisle, focusing intently on issues related to natural resources, and winning over opponents with persistence and unrelenting kindness.

Peltola had four children while in office and left the legislature in 2009, citing the toll her travel was taking on her growing family.

In 2010, Peltola helped run the successful write-in campaign for Murkowski, who had lost a Republican primary to a tea party challenger, Joe Miller. Later, Peltola told the Christian Science Monitor that Murkowski is “really following her own moral compass. That appeals to Alaskans. We like people who are independent thinkers.”

After the legislature, Peltola worked as “a manager of community Development and Sustainability” at the Donlin Gold project, in Southwest Alaska, according to her campaign website. She also served one term in the Bethel City Council and was a state lobbyist. Since 2017, she has worked as executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Over the years, Peltola would maintain contact with Alaska’s political leaders, including Young. She told a local radio station that the last time she saw him was in his Washington office last November. She went “to give him dry fish and visit with him and talk about the legislation. I told him I have often thought about running for his seat.” They both laughed, she recalled.

During her campaign, Peltola said she wants a national law protecting abortion rights and favors some gun-control measures, such as universal background checks. When asked whether Trump bore responsibility for the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Peltola recently told the Anchorage Daily News: “I believe in our courts and judicial system. I have no doubt that once due process has been completed, justice will be served.”

On whether transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in the sport according to the gender they identify with, Peltola gave the paper a nuanced answer: “My starting point is that sports should be fair for all students, and we must protect the rights of all students — especially those that are already subject to significant discrimination.”

She also said the recent Russian aggression proves the need to rebuild the U.S. military presence in Alaska. When it comes to natural resources, Peltola also appears to try to balance the need for preservation with the need to ensure access to those resources for Native Alaskans and all residents in rural, underserved areas.

She opposes development at Pebble Mine and supports building the proposed 200-plus-mile Ambler Road, telling the Anchorage Daily News that her support is contingent on “local support, usage restrictions, and environmental standards” being met.

In May, she wrote on Twitter that voting in 2005 to cut retirement benefits for teachers, based in part on “unreliable information from the state actuaries,” was “the biggest regret of my legislative career.”

Throughout her career, and on the campaign trail, Peltola has built a reputation for being nice. In June, Alaska Public Radio described it as her “superpower” and noted, among many examples, a brief exchange that month at a debate where Peltola was seated next to Palin.

Though their careers have diverged since their days as young mothers working in state politics, Peltola and Palin maintained a friendliness that was evident on the campaign trail.

At the debate, Peltola was just about to explain how, if elected, she would help fund the state’s most important infrastructure projects, when Palin, mistakenly believing it was her turn to speak, began answering.

When Palin began, Peltola smiled, lowered the microphone she was holding and quietly signaled to the moderator that all was okay. She even tapped Palin on the shoulder, urging her to continue.

“See how polite she is?” Palin gushed. “This is the way it should be in politics.”

While one race ends with a Peltola win, another is underway. Peltola, Palin and Begich all advanced to the November ballot in their bid for the full, two-year term in Congress.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

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What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, experts helped us game out what would happen if he wins again.

Key issue: Abortion rights advocates scored major victories in the first nationwide election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Here’s how abortion access fared on the ballot in nine states.