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Mary Peltola talks salmon, bipartisanship, and winning Alaska US House race

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Mary Peltola, right, answers a question during a U.S. House candidate forum at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association annual conference, which was held at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage on Aug 31.

Former Bethel legislator Mary Peltola has won election to the U.S. House of Representatives to fill the remainder of Don Young’s term. Peltola, who is Yup’ik, will be the first Alaska Native person to serve in Congress and the first woman to serve as Alaska’s U.S. Representative. Peltola, a Democrat, beat Republican Sarah Palin by three percentage points to win the seat. KYUK’s Nina Kravinsky spoke with Peltola by phone shortly after the election results were announced on Aug. 31.

This interview and transcript have been edited for length and clarity.

Peltola: He [Don Young] has a tremendous legacy. And it will be a real challenge to fill his shoes. And I don't think anybody really could ever fill his shoes, but I'm going to try my hardest. And we have seen that his office has been closed for a number of months, and we want to open back up the congressional office in Alaska and make sure that constituent services are being addressed.

Kravinsky: You received really huge support from communities in this region; over 68% of votes from the Bethel House District 38. In Kwethluk you received 93% of votes. What does it mean to you to get that amount of support from your home?

Peltola: Well, it means the world to me to have the support of my friends, and family, and neighbors. They're the people who know me best. They know my work ethic, they know my commitment to really serve all people. And honestly, the support that I got from the community of Kwethluk is just very heartwarming, and it just means the world to me.

Kravinsky: There are a lot of headlines, I'm sure you've been seeing them, announcing your win as the first Alaska Native elected to Congress and the first woman elected as Alaska's sole U.S. representative. What do those firsts mean to you?

Peltola: Well, it's a lot, it's a lot to take in. And I just really want to reiterate that I want to follow in Don Young's footsteps of representing all Alaskans, regardless of ethnicity. I am Yup'ik. I'm very proud to be Yup'ik. But I'm a lot more than just my ethnicity. And I want to really share the values of our region, working together and working collaboratively and holding each other up, I want to hopefully, really bring those values to Washington, D.C.

Kravinsky: I want to talk about fishing now. Supporting subsistence fishing is a huge part of your campaign. You were in Bethel this past weekend. The river is closed to coho salmon fishing for the first time ever. What was that like for you?

Peltola: Well, food security and the issues that we're facing in western Alaska certainly was the the leading reason that I wanted to run for this seat. To really elevate those issues and talk about the need for precautionary management and talking about the need for good management of our marine ecosystem. And really the dependence that we have across Alaska on wild foods for our food security, and it was heartbreaking. And it's demoralizing to see the runs, the salmon runs, the depressed salmon stocks that we've been experiencing the last 13 years. And it's of great concern to me that now silvers are being restricted. This is the third species that we have had very severe restrictions put upon us. And I do think that it is time that the burden of conservation be extended to people far beyond our river systems. The burden of conservation needs to be shared in a much more equal fashion. And especially that burden needs to be shared with people who just have an economic interest in our salmon and in our marine resources. So that is an issue that's very close to my heart. Salmon and our dependence on salmon is a relationship that we've had for 12,000 years on the Kuskokwim River, and it's one that we do not want to lose. It really is our tie to the people who came before us, and it's really incumbent upon us to make sure that that resource is available for the generations that come after us.

Kravinsky: You'll be Alaska's first congressional Democrat since 2014. How do you hope a bipartisan congressional delegation could benefit Alaska?

Peltola: I think that it's very important that Alaska have a bipartisan delegation. Alaskans run the spectrum on the political front. I mean, we've got a lot of nonpartisan, independent, and Democratic folks in Alaska, and libertarians, and everybody needs representation in Alaska. And I'm very happy to see a bipartisan delegation. And I don't think of that in any way as a handicap. I think it's a tremendous asset. And I have very good working relationships with both Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Sullivan, and I'm really looking forward to working with them and partnering with them to accomplish a lot of things Alaska needs accomplished.

Kravinsky: I'm curious, what happens next when you head to D.C.?

Peltola: I cannot answer that right now. I've really been trying to keep one foot in front of the other and take each day one at a time. I didn't want to get ahead of myself. I'm a pretty superstitious person and I did not want to jinx anything by having, you know, an idea of what was going to happen. This thing really could have gone either way. And so I'll be learning right along with a lot of other Alaskans what the next steps will be.

Kravinsky: Anything else that you want to add? Anything you want to tell the hometown KYUK listeners?

Peltola: Well, I'm just really thankful to my mom, I'm thankful to my mom's husband, Pete Williams. I'm grateful to my kids, and my family, and my husband, and Gene Peltola Sr., and Irma Peltola, Ana Hoffman, you know, I could just go on and on. I'm very, very grateful to all of my family and friends and neighbors and a shout out to my Kwethluk relatives, and I'm just looking forward to continuing on the campaign trail. This is a victory for the short seat, but we all have the long seat in our sights and we're looking at November and wanting to build on the momentum that we've gained, and just looking forward to continuing to reach out to Alaskans.

Nina is a temporary news reporter at KYUK. She comes to Bethel from NPR, where she's a producer at Morning Edition.
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