‘In Mary’s house’: Peltola is clear crowd favorite at Alaska Federation of Natives candidate forum

US Rep. Mary Peltola meets with supporters at the Alaska Federation of Natives’ 2022 conference Saturday at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Former Gov. Sarah Palin, one of two Republicans seeking to unseat Congresswoman Mary Peltola, said this is the toughest campaign she has ever fought.

“Because of her — Mary,” Palin said at the Alaska Federation of Natives’ US House candidate forum on Saturday.

A huge cheer arose from the crowd for the first Alaskanative elected to Congress. There was never any doubt who the crowd favorite was at the AFN convention in Anchorage, which draws thousands from all corners of the state. Attendees waved to fans with a photo of Peltola’s face on them. From the back of the room, Spenard resident Maar’aq Alice Crow, originally from Peltola’s home region of Bethel, shook a cowbell that echoed in the hall of the Dena’ina Center.

Alice Maar’aq Crow brought her cowbell and Mary Peltola fan to the US House candidate forum. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)
AFN attendees wave with their Mary Peltola fans at the US House candidate forum. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media).

Palin acknowledged the obvious.

“We’re in Mary’s house,” Palin said. “I know and I love her dearly. I’m as proud of her as you all are. And stopped…. I just wish she’d convert to the other party.”

Palin did not show the same warmth to the other Republican on stage with her, Nick Begich III. The friction between Palin and Begich wasn’t evident on Saturday, but it has existed since the start of the campaign and makes it less likely that either of them can win. If Palin finishes second again, as she did in the August special election, she will need enough second-place votes from Begich supporters to take over Peltola’s likely lead.

US House Republican candidate Nick Begich III. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

The three leading candidates, and Fairbanks Libertarian Chris Bye, answered a series of questions important to Alaska Natives and rural residents during the 40-minute forum. The candidates’ answers reflected their ideologies.

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Begich said one of his main goals is to “make the business case for Alaska.” On a question about disparities in mental health, Begich saw an economic angle.

“We need to make sure we have job opportunities,” Begich said, “and long-term community development plans, so that people know — young people specifically — that they have a career and a purpose and an opportunity to remain a part of their local community on long term.”

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Palin also made the connection between jobs and mental health. She sprinkled her answer with a bit of religion and populism.

Republican US House candidate Sarah Palin after the forum. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

“God created us to work,” she said. “And there are some areas in Alaska where it’s like 90% unemployment, and that doesn’t make sense, because those areas, that’s where we exploit and extract our natural resources that make other people really rich.”

Peltola cited a host of contributing factors she says support mental health: safe housing, education, nutrition, broadband and telehealth. She cited a treatment program in her region that gets people outdoors and following the seasons.

“And this is not just for Alaska Natives,” said Peltola, who often speaks about the importance of unity and finding common ground. “This is for everyone. Anyone from across the country can access this type of treatment. And what better treatment is there than being outdoors and connecting with our wildlife and sharing with our elders?”

US Rep. Mary Peltola. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

The forum ended on a lighter note. “Have you had an emergency this week?” asked the moderator, referring to the traditional treat of berries mixed with whipped fat or vegetable shortening.

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“It wasn’t anybody’s birthday. So not this week. No,” Palin said.

“I’ve actually had it three times,” Peltola said, to considerable cheers.

Bye joked that Peltola ate his portion. Begich said he hadn’t had any that week and to the next question he admitted he hadn’t had muktuk (whale blubber) either.

“I am an honest politician,” he said.

AFN delegates later officially endorsed Peltola in the US House race.

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Find other election coverage and voter resources at alaskapublic.org/elections. Easily compare candidates for Governor, US House and US Senate with our new candidate comparison tool.

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