Editor’s note: Kevin Bumgarner met with Mary Peltola, a Democrat from Bethel and one of three U.S. House of Representatives candidates who remain in the special election for the late Don Young’s seat, when she was in Kodiak over the weekend. Excerpts from that interview follow. KDM will attempt to meet with every candidate who spends time in Kodiak during this election season.
Do you feel like Kodiak voters know who you are, or have wrong impressions of who you are, or don’t know who you are?
I think largely I’m unknown. I’ve done polling and I’ve seen other polls done where it shows that I am the least known of the three of us in the special race. That’s obvious, when you look at Sarah Palin being an international celebrity and Nick Begich having such good family name recognition here. But certainly I want to get to know more people and have them recognize me and my face and my name.
I served in the state legislature for 10 years. But that was 14 years ago. And a lot has happened in 14 years. It is good to re-introduce myself to some folks and just make sure people know what I stand for.
You currently serve as executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter Tribal Fish Commission. Help me understand what that is and what you do in that role?
It’s a new organization. I had been the executive director for five years, and I resigned after the June 11 election out of respect for the organization finding a new executive director.
The organization is the 33 tribes that live on the Kuskokwim River, and I’m sure that you’ve heard the west coast of Alaska has very depressed salmon returns — specifically Chinook and chum salmon. Since 2014 there have been petitions every year to federalize the river. Under state management salmon resources are seen as a common-use fishery. They belong to everyone equally. But under federal laws, if there is a conservation concern — if you are not meeting escapement needs and if subsistence needs are not being met — then the federal government has the [right] to come in and take over management so that, No. 1, escapement needs are being met and conservation issues are being met. And the people that live closest to that resource have the first shot at it.
The last five years we’ve been at about 20 percent of our harvest need. So we’re fighting over crumbs and trying to find the fairest ways possible to try to divvy up the small amount we are able to harvest. And it’s very painful. It’s very emotional. It’s a no-win situation and, honestly, running for Congress is a relief coming out of the salmon wars on my own river.
What have you learned from past experiences that you could use as a Representative in Congress?
One of the things I learned in the legislature — I went in as a 24 year old and had a fighting mentality. I’m going to go fight our enemies and fight for us. And I quickly learned you don’t get very far with a fighting mentality and viewing other people as enemies or opponents. You really can only be productive if you’re working with people in partnerships and having healthy, productive relationships.
And in the salmon wars what I’ve learned is, No. 1, every issue that we face is emotional. It might elicit a different emotion, but salmon is definitely a very, very emotional issue. I learned from the elders who were in the room — just by their example — how important it is to not show up from a place of rage or bitterness. That it’s really important to show up wanting to solve problems from a place a love and not impugning people’s motives. Looking at everyone in the room as coming from a good place. They are here because they also want to solve these problems.
I read the statement on your campaign website about not sitting around doing nothing while Seattle-based fishing corporations decimate our salmon runs. What would you say to Kodiak-based trawlers?
When I make comments about trawlers, I’m talking about the enormous factory trawlers who are based in Seattle. I’m not talking about Alaskan-based fishermen and Alaska-based fishing families.
What’s the difference if I’m creating a bycatch problem with my method?
For me it’s more the scale. On the Yukon River, people who have lived there for 12,000 years and are very place based. They are there because they have relied on that salmon resource to come back year after year, decade after decade, and they are not allowed to fish for [even] one salmon. Meantime, there are metric tons of juvenile salmon, halibut and crab being wasted and thrown overboard.
That’s a disparity. That is an inequitable system, and it’s really only factoring in folks who have just an economic relationship with the resource and not food on their own table. It’s not a way of teaching your children a work ethic and how to work as an enterprise and collaborate and cooperate.
And the other piece of this — I didn’t have a hard opinion on what went on outside of our river until we got into the 11th year of these severe restrictions on the Kuskokwim where we’re limping along on 20 percent of our need.
If we’re able to restrict ourselves from harvesting 80 percent of our need and no one else in the footprint of the salmon has to do that that just seems very inequitable. To me it seems like social injustice and environmental injustice.
On the issue of resource development, you said you support “responsible resource development.” What does that look like to you?
To me it looks like projects that plan out reclamation — making sure that we’re not negatively impacting our environment. Minimizing the footprints. Making sure the communities that live near the project support the project and have economy benefits, whether that is through lower energy or more access to good jobs with livable wages.
I think that there is a need to have mining on some level here in the state. So I’m not against all projects, just projects that do not have social license to operate and probably never will have.
You say that Alaska needs critical infrastructure everywhere you look, and you will “champion that fight in DC” to get our share of federal funding. What, specifically, is Kodiak’s greatest infrastructure needs?
A fire station. That’s definitely one. I think your Coast Guard base needs growth with the Arctic expansion that we’re seeing. You can never have too much search and rescue resources at your disposal in Alaska.
I don’t know if housing is an infrastructure need, but it is certainly one of the most important aspects to any community. As a mom I have realized that the most important thing that I can do for my kids is make sure that I have a home that is safe, peaceful and loving, and making sure that my kids are ready for school. And I can’t do that if I can’t find housing, let alone affordable housing. It’s so hard for working families. I think every single community in Alaska has a very significant and concerning housing shortage. It’s an issue for our families. It’s an issue for our workforce. How can we attract people to come and live here if they can’t get a roof over their head?
What would you push for?
We have a history of top-end social safety nets that really were protective barriers for people to not be literally living outdoors or in your car. I’m very encouraged to see that Kodiak has a teen center. One of the things that I talk about is that almost every town in Alaska has a bingo hall. Almost no towns have a teen center. And when you look at something like the gun violence epidemic that we’re seeing, almost to an incident those are a result of extreme isolation. Every one of the perpetrators has a feeling of extreme isolation. We’ve got to do better.
I deeply care about quality of life issues, and I think that’s where these social safety net issues come into play.
You say that ensuring high-quality and affordable childcare is critical to the well-being of Alaska families. Do you have a plan for how to make that happen?
The Inflation Reduction Act has many of the pieces that the Build Back Better plan did. I’m not sure that it has childcare, but I sure hope it does. People tend to think about childcare as a mommy issue; it’s an everyone issue. It’s an employer issue.
The expanded Child Tax Credit is stalled in Congress. I know this is a priority of yours. What have you heard about why Congress is yet to re-approve?
My guess is the concern they have over inflation and overheating the economy with additional money in everybody’s bank account. That $300 per child (per month) really helped a lot of families make sure they were able to feed their kids, make sure they were able to get into the housing that we’ve seen increase. Everything has gone up. Everything has gone up by at least 9 percent, but automobiles are 30 percent more. So many things are much higher than 9 percent.
There’s one school of logic that says, ‘No. Don’t keep pumping that kind of cash out.’ And the other school of logic — like mine — is, ‘How do you make ends meet when you’re going backwards by 30 percent?’ That is an enormous setback.
You said that you would protect Medicaid expansion and work to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. Do you think lawmakers have the appetite to strengthen it, and what would strengthening it look like to you?
Unfortunately we have a system where our elected leaders are a thermometer and not a thermostat. And it really is up to the electorate to be the thermostat, and it’s a bit clunky of a system. You have to have so much outside pressure to move the needle and create the political will. That’s the fuel that drives most legislators.
Whether we’re just maintaining ground or gaining ground — both of those are important. We still live in a society where having an operation, going to the doctor, can bankrupt you, can make you a homeless person. Again, that is not the society I lived in growing up. It’s a shocker witnessing that. It’s a clear indication that something is wrong with this formula, and it needs to be fixed. And we just can’t be ignoring it and pretending that people aren’t going bankrupt from one trip to the doctor.
You say that our LGBTQ+ population deserves to be protected to the fullest extent of the law. What protections do they need that they currently don’t have?
That translates into making sure that somebody isn’t able to kick you out of your rental or not sell a house to you, or not hire you or promote you not based on your actual skills or talents or demonstrated work abilities, but on something unrelated. It’s really just a matter of human dignity across the board. And it’s not just for LGBTQ people. It’s for elderly people, it’s for people who live with various handicaps. Every person deserves dignity and respect, and should be allowed to live and work where they choose. That’s what I mean.
How do you codify that into law?
We have a new Supreme Court that isn’t beholding to precedent. That is very new. We have a new Supreme Court that is comfortable taking away rights that have been established for decades. They started with Roe v Wade, and they have indicated that they are looking at ratcheting back contraception. They are looking at undoing gay marriage. They are potentially looking at interracial marriages. The cascading rights that are being talked about — that’s a really big concern.
Alaskans talk a lot about federal overreach. I can’t imagine anything being more of a federal overreach than telling an individual Alaskan how they should see themselves, who they should love and anything to do with their reproductive rights.
I’m very pro-choice and in favor of women being in control of their reproductive rights because of the Alaska native history of women being sterilized without their consent and without their knowledge. This is a very personal issue with me — just feeling that every woman should have complete control over when she decides to have a family.