Mary Peltola: 13 Facts About The U.S. Representative Who Defeated Sarah Palin

Mary Peltola is a Democratic politician who's known to get along with her Republican rivals. Moreover, some of her views don't necessarily line up with those of the Democratic Party which is perhaps why she managed to get elected in a mostly red state, despite facing off against two Republican rivals for the Alaska House seat.

Peltola is an Indigenous Alaskan and a member of the Yup'ik tribe. She grew up in rural Alaska and called Kwethluk, Tuntutuliak, Platinum, along the Kuskokwim River her home for most of her childhood. Her family later moved to Bethel where most of the people living in these areas rely on fishing to make a living. Peltola's father, who was Nebraskan (her mother was Yup'ik), worked as a bush pilot after several years of working as a teacher. He was also a fisherman, and six-year-old Peltola had the pleasure of joining her father on many commercial fishing excursions.

It's no surprise that Peltola has a deep understanding of Alaska and its people, and it's likely one of the reasons she won over so many Republicans in the November 2022 general election. Peltola didn't just step into politics a few years ago — she's been at it since the age of 24 when she became Bethel's representative in the Alaska Legislature. Even then, her focus was on making sure the state's rural areas flourished while advocating for sustainable fishing. That hasn't changed since.

Mary became the first Indigenous Alaskan to serve in Congress

When Mary Peltola defeated Republican candidates Sarah Palin and Nick Begich in the 2022 special election to fulfill the remainder of late Republican Representative Don Young's tenure, she made history. Her predecessor was also a legend — Young was the longest-serving congressman in the U.S. government's history. When Peltola won the election, she not only became the first Democrat to win the state's House seat in almost 50 years, but she also became the first Native Alaskan to ever represent the state in Congress. That's quite the feat, and when the general election came around, Peltola won again. Her accomplishments didn't go to her head, however. "Alaska is full of Alaska Native leaders," she told Elle. "There's nothing new or unique or noteworthy to me about being an Alaska Native leader."

When Peltola won the election, the moment wasn't just special because she made history. She told Elle that her parents worked on Congressman Don Young's campaign 50 years ago. At the time, Peltola's mother was pregnant with her, not even dreaming that her unborn daughter would one day follow in Young's footsteps. At her swearing-in ceremony, Peltola wore Alaskan Mukluks (traditional boots worn by Alaskan Natives) as a nod to her Native Alaskan roots. It was a special moment for Peltola and her state. The pictures taken that day will most likely end up in history books.

She managed to become Alaska's most popular politician

Many are still baffled by Mary Peltola's unlikely win, but when you ask the experts, they have some answers as to why she's managed to win in a red state. Speaking to the Independent, Dr. Mara Einstein, who specializes in advertising, explained that Peltola did her campaigning just right. She managed to embody what Alaskans value most, not only with her marketing and catchy slogan "Fish, family, freedom," but also with her heritage. "Brands are made up of a logo or a symbol, a tagline, and a mythology. In Mary Peltola's case, the logo is the candidate herself," Einstein said. Peltola's slogan, albeit simple, addressed all the main concerns people in her state have. "'Fish, family, & freedom' is simple and yet communicates so much — a commitment to the environment and sustainable fishing, concern about family matters even if she supports abortion, and freedom is code for support of the Second Amendment," Einstein explained. The fact that Don Young's daughters publicly endorsed Peltola definitely didn't hurt.

Peltola also made it clear that she's not interested in dirty politics. She likes to keep things civil. Despite the fact that Sarah Palin and Nick Begich frequently took jabs at each other during the election, Peltola never spoke ill of her opponents. The fact that she's Yup'ik gave her another edge her opponents simply didn't have. "Could you imagine Sarah Palin being sworn in wearing mukluks? It's not going to happen," Einstein said.

She's been dubbed a 'kind' politician

Mary Peltola thinks it's hilarious that some call her a "kind" politician. "I would not use that word to describe me ever," she told Elle. "Me and my kids and my husband often chuckle about this." Just because she wouldn't necessarily call herself kind doesn't mean she isn't. Peltola describes herself as "polite and respectful." When you ask people who know her and who have worked with her, they confirm that she is indeed those things.

Former Alaska State Representative Andrew Halcro told NPR that, while she worked in the Legislature, Peltola was one of the nicest people around. "She was never bitter. She was never angry. She was never partisan," he said. Halcro did, however, add that Peltola is no pushover. "I think with Mary Peltola, you should never, ever misconstrue kindness for somebody who's not going to stand up for what she believes in," he added. Peltola's good friend, Bev Hoffman, agreed. "She is nice. But she is so tough," Hoffman told the outlet.

Peltola is well aware that, if people think you are kind, they also tend to assume that they can walk all over you, especially in politics. "I think in American politics, there's a hint of weakness to [the word kind]," she told Elle. "There is this conflated idea that if you're kind, you're naive. But I think you can be strong and effective and do it in a way that isn't mean or disrespectful."

Mary's parents were good friends with her predecessor, Don Young

Not only did Mary Peltola's parents work on the campaign that would launch Congressman Don Young's 49-year-long career, but they were also very good friends with him.

Peltola's father and Young first crossed paths while they were both still working as teachers. They enjoyed hunting together and even fought wildfires side by side. The two remained friends even after they changed careers. Young moved to Washington, D.C., and Peltola once spent Thanksgiving with his family while attending boarding school in the Allentown, Pennsylvania area. Her parents couldn't afford a plane ticket home and instead asked Young if she could spend the holiday with him. He was more than happy to welcome young Peltola into his home. This visit, Peltola told CNN, made her look at Young with new eyes. "I realized at that time how significant Don's position was," she said.

Young is arguably one of the reasons Peltola ended up pursuing politics. She told Elle that he used to call her his "youngest" volunteer. Knowing someone like Young, who was an important figure in politics, made Peltola realize that running for office one day is something within everyone's reach if they really want to do it. "There was a benefit to feeling like public office isn't for other people. It's for everyday people that we know," she said.

Mary remained friends with her rival Sarah Palin

Even though Sarah Palin took plenty of jabs at her Republican rival Nick Begich ahead of the 2022 elections, she never said anything derogatory about Mary Peltola. The latter doesn't believe in badmouthing her opponents, so naturally, she never took a jab at Palin either. Instead, the two women kept things amicable throughout the elections. Those who watched the debate between the two know that it was practically void of drama — the two women somehow managed to remain cordial despite their opposing political views. In fact, Peltola told the Independent that she and Palin texted during their respective campaigns, swapping tips and wishing each other good luck.

Peltola and Palin's paths first crossed in Juneau when they both worked at the statehouse. The two eventually lost touch after Palin resigned as Alaska's governor. When Peltola announced her bid for Congress, she and Palin reconnected. "I love it when Sarah and I are at the same forum. Every time I see her, I give her a hug. I'm always happy to see Sarah," Peltola told CNN. "I feel camaraderie and a sense of fraternity with both Nick and Sarah." Palin even sent Peltola a congratulatory text after she beat her in the election, calling Peltola a "real Alaskan chick! Beautiful & smart and tough," Peltola revealed to AP News. She replied to her friend, "Your text means the world to me ... We really are in this together."

She got very sick after winning the general election

Shortly after bagging the general election, Mary Peltola found herself bedbound with a very nasty bout of flu. It was less than ideal — she was eager to step into her new role as Alaska's congresswoman but had no choice but to stay home and recover. "I got very, very sick. My daughter came from boarding school on election night and brought with her this very strong strain of a cold slash flu," Peltola told the Independent. "My family and the whole campaign team and I spent a few days being knocked flat."

When she did finally return to work, she did so with a bang, filled with renewed enthusiasm for the work ahead of her. While Peltola didn't enjoy getting knocked down by the flu, it did remind her why she ran for Congress in the first place — to make people's lives better, and that includes granting them sick leave when they need it. As fate would have it, a vote regarding this was coming up, and Peltola knew exactly what her stance would be.

She defied the White House in one of her first significant votes

Shortly after recovering from a nasty bout of flu, Peltola was set to make her voice heard in one of her first significant votes in the House. The vote concerned railroad workers and some of their work privileges — the Biden administration wanted Democrats to vote for the deal they'd brokered, but it didn't include sick leave, even though it was one of the things the workers had requested. So Peltola didn't give the White House her vote, and she was the only Democrat in the House to do so.

It was not pleasant, especially for me," she told the Independent. "But the thing is, working on the railroad is a very dangerous and treacherous type of work. It's physical labour, and you need all your wits about you. When I'm not feeling well, I do not have my wits about me and I tend to be clumsy and not as alert. And I think that that becomes a life and death situation," she said. 

Peltola had the good grace to tell the White House beforehand that it didn't have her vote in the matter, and she said that officials didn't try to change her mind but instead accepted her decision. "They recognise that I won a unique election in a unique state. And there is a recognition that I am not going to be able to be toeing the party line on every vote, every time," Peltola said.

She actually supports oil and gas drilling exploration in Alaska

It's no secret that most Democrats don't support oil and gas drilling. Mary Peltola's opponent, Sarah Palin, got plenty of flack for her "drill baby, drill" catchphrase, but as it turns out, Peltola isn't against oil and gas drilling, as long as it's sustainable. This goes against most Democrats' views, and Peltola will inevitably receive criticism from some members of the public because of her stance.

Peltola has tried to explain why she supports drilling in an X (formerly Twitter) thread she posted in May 2022, which was well ahead of the special election in which she would emerge the victor. "Responsible natural resource usage has been and will continue to be a pillar of our livelihood," Peltola started the thread. She then explained all the benefits — the creation of jobs, infrastructure, and economic growth. She didn't stop there, however, adding, "This must be weighed against potential environmental impacts."

Peltola also made it clear that oil and gas exploration and drilling projects need to do their part too. "I believe in responsible resource development only when projects have a social license to operate from the local community and appropriate environmental protections. This is why, for example, I don't support Pebble," she wrote. Peltola went on to say that, in the end, the decision regarding which projects will be allowed to move forward will be that of the Alaskan people.

Mary is passionate about working with both Republicans and Democrats

For Mary Peltola, building good working relationships with people on both sides of the party line is important. She told Vogue that working with people is what she's here to do, no matter who they are or their political affiliation. A divided nation is a weak nation, and Peltola is eager for Americans to be united again. As Peltola's friendship with her Republican rival Sarah Palin attests, it is possible to get along with someone who has a different political affiliation than you.

Peltola's upbringing in rural Alaska is one of the reasons she believes in bipartisanship. "If you come from a really small place, you have to get along with people. For Alaska Natives, it's a matter of survival," Peltola told Elle. She previously told The Guardian that she's open to working with everyone when it comes to solving challenging problems. "I want to work with everyone and anyone who is a reasonable person to find solutions to Alaska's challenges," she said. When she spoke to Vogue, Peltola raised concerns about the division in America, saying the times we're living in are reminiscent of the Cold War and therefore it's crucial people come together now more than ever. "If you are an American, you are my team member. You are my partner, not my enemy. It does not matter if you're undeclared, nonpartisan, Republican, or MAGA — if you are an American, I want to work with you," she said.

She has a different stance on gun control than most Democrats

One of the things that sets Mary Petlola apart from most of her Democratic counterparts is her stance on the Second Amendment. While mass shootings in the United States have increased at an alarming rate, there has been no success in amending this law to allow for improved gun control.

In March 2023, a devastating school shooting in Nashville prompted yet another outcry for improved gun control, and Peltola's response wasn't exactly what most expected it to be. While attending a hearing at the House Natural Resources Committee, Peltola responded to the tragedy that occurred in Nashville. "You look at some of the tragedies that are occurring, and those aren't hunters, those aren't kids that have grown up with hunting and the good values that, I think, hunting and hunting families provide," she said (via Alaska Public Media). "So I just ... like the opportunity to give a plug for Second Amendment rights and good values." Needless to say, her response sparked plenty of criticism, but even though Peltola believes in the Second Amendment, she agrees that some changes need to be made.

In 2022, ahead of her bid for Congress in the special election, Peltola told Alaska Beacon that "common sense action" must be taken and that she supported "provisions like secure storage laws, reasonable waiting periods, and universal background checks ... while still preserving the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment."

Mary advocates for sustainable fishing

Mary Peltola learned the ropes of fishing when she was a kid, and as Alaska's new House Representative, she's eager to address the issues that Alaska's fishing industry faces. Peltola believes in sustainable fishing, and since her victory in the general election, she's started taking some action to preserve Alaska's local fisheries. However, it's been quite a challenge. Peltola admits that global warming has been affecting the state's fisheries, but another problem is the trawl industry.

Peltola blames the council heading trawling companies for not properly monitoring trawling activity. Bycatch quotas are still too high and little is being done to ensure habitat protection. The trawling industry has had a profound impact on Alaska's smaller fisheries and subsistence fishermen. "We're looking at a multi-species collapse," Peltola told Politico. "And it's not just subsistence, but these smaller mom-and-pop fisheries. The commercial industry isn't just these industrial players. It's so many Alaskan families. It is part of our identity," she explained. She added that it might take decades before chum salmon and chinook populations recover.

When it comes to sustainable fishing, Peltola means business — she supports the new Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act despite grumblings from those in the trawling industry. The founder and executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, Julie Bonney, told Politico that she would have preferred Peltola meet with her company before supporting the new Magnuson-Stevens Act, saying she was concerned about the impact it would have on the trawling industry.

She found her new job challenging in the beginning

Mary Peltola found living and working in Washington, D.C. challenging. She was used to living in Bethel, Alaska, and the rural town couldn't be more different from the city of Washington. Peltola found herself feeling a little overwhelmed and lost when she stepped into her new role as a congresswoman. "Just physically being here presents challenges," she told Elle. "I'm away from my family. I'm away from all of my closest Alaskan friends. That's been challenging, but certainly not anything we can't overcome," she continued. She did, however, admit that it was tough in the beginning. "For many weeks, I felt perpetually lost in the office building, on the campus, in the city," she said.

Peltola made it through those first few weeks by staying true to who she is and sticking to the good habits she has cultivated over the years. She also made sure to remember the spiritual teachings she's honored throughout her life. "Sometimes before I do something that makes me nervous or that's brand-new to me, I repeat little mantras like, 'Faith, hope, love, and wisdom.' I make sure that before I fall asleep, I express gratitude for all the things that I have," she revealed. Not being super young also helps, Peltola said. Being in her fifties means that she's lived plenty of life already, and as they say, with age comes wisdom.

Mary's husband died in a plane crash nearly a year after she won the general election

Nearly a year before Mary Peltola would celebrate her first year as Alaska's House Representative, tragedy struck. On September 13, 2023, Peltola's husband, Eugene Peltola Jr., was killed in a plane crash.

Peltola's chief of staff, Anton McParland, posted a statement to X (formerly Twitter) to inform the public of Eugene Peltola's death. "We are devastated to share that Mary's husband, Eugene Peltola Jr. — 'Buzzy' to all of us who knew and loved him — passed away earlier this morning following a plane accident in Alaska," the statement read. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed to NBC News that Mr. Peltola's plane went down during a return trip after he dropped off a hunter and hunting equipment. "The pilot was the only person on board," the NTSB confirmed.

The statement posted by Peltoa's chief of staff described Eugene as someone who had "a delightful sense of humor that lightened the darkest moments," adding, "He was completely devoted to his parents, kids, siblings, extended family and friends — and he simply adored Mary. We are heartbroken for the family's loss." Peltola left Washington, D.C., to be with her family after the tragedy, and President Joe Biden called her to express his condolences.