WASHINGTON – Democrat Mary Peltola was sworn in Tuesday night to finish out the remaining months of the late Don Young’s term, making her the first Alaskan native to serve in Congress and the first woman to hold the seat.
“Sitting at the table is different,” Peltola told The Associated Press on Monday. “But I always remind people that I’m not here to represent just the 16% of Alaskans who are Alaska Native. I’m here to represent all Alaskans.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi administered the oath of office to Peltola and two other new members of the House, Democrat Pat Ryan and Republican Joe Sempolinski of New York, in the chamber.
Peltola, aka Yupik, was wearing Alaskan mukluk, traditional shoes, while two other members of her delegation, Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, sat behind her and applauded her historic victory. Peltola previously served as a state legislator for 10 years representing rural Bethel, Alaska.
The 49-year-old made history last month when she won a special election to end Young’s term, beating out a field of candidates that included Republican Sarah Palin, who was seeking a political comeback in the state where she was governor.
A day before the swearing-in ceremony, Peltola stood outside what was once Young’s office, filled with local and national press, marveling at the moment.
“I really hope Don enjoys it,” Peltola told the AP. “I can’t help but think that some things got in my way because of his great sense of humor.”
Interestingly, 50 years ago, just before Peltola was born, her parents worked on Young’s first campaign for a single congressional seat in Alaska. Young won and held it for 49 years until his death in March.
Peltola emphasized her commitment to “fish, family and freedom.” Fish is a staple of life in Alaska, and salmon has special cultural significance for Alaska Natives. The subsistence lifestyle of fish, wildlife and berries is very important in rural Alaska, including many Native communities, where supplies must be flown in or hacked in, and the cost of basic necessities can be prohibitive.
Peltola said she sees her few weeks in office as a tribute to Young’s service as a more moderate force in an increasingly polarized Congress. Like the often blunt Young, Peltola said she brings a sense of humor to the job and has a track record of building consensus with even the most conservative colleagues.
After Palin finished second to Peltola in last month’s special election, the two women shared a heartfelt conversation. In a text message, Palin congratulated her and wrote that she was “a true Alaskan girl! Beautiful, smart and tough.”
Peltola responded, “Your text means the world to me… We’re really in this together.”
The newly elected congresswoman’s time in the Alaska Legislature coincides with Palin’s time as governor, and the women remain cordial. Peltola said one of the most “unpleasant” parts of American politics is negative campaigning.
But staying above the fray can prove difficult. Peltola is on the ballot in November to serve a full two-year term, again facing Palin, Republican Nick Begich and Libertarian Chris Bye, all of whom advanced from last month’s open primary.
That’s partly why Peltola said she doesn’t plan to get too comfortable in her new office, which Young, a Republican, has decorated with buck and bear heads and large rifles in homage to his love of hunting. Now those walls are bare.
“It didn’t make sense to get too entrenched or beautified or set up shop,” Peltola said. “I really feel like I’m here at camp until the semester is over. And then be open and see what happens next.”
Associated Press reporter Becky Borer in Juneau, Alaska contributed to this report.
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