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For nearly half a century, Republican Don Young represented Alaska’s interests in Washington. An unflappable and steadfast lawmaker who broke the record for serving as Dean from the House of Representatives, he commanded widespread respect in the chamber. When the oldest member of the House had a problem with a piece of legislation, people noticed and corrected the bill.
So when the young died in March, Alaska had a chance for the first time in 49 years to regain ground in D.C. And as voting in Alaska continues a week after their special election and primary, it’s clear that Alaska is on the verge of a full swing. Both former Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, and former state Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, filed for both the special election to end Young’s term and the race to fill the seat for the next two-year term, which begins in January.
Peltola, a member of the Yup’ik tribe, will be first The Alaska native will serve in Congress. She surprised some political observers with her performance in the ranked-choice special election, where votes are still being counted, but she currently leads Palin. Both women will run again in November for the full term.
Honoring the first Alaska Native in Congress is easy to dismiss as a novelty in the Lower 48. But when you think about how Alaska Natives are treated different compared to other Indians, it’s worth taking a shot to appreciate the development. While Native Americans have long had a cool footing in Congress, Alaska Natives have yet to hold their own in the Capitol. The laws often around the local population treatment Alaska Natives as part of the first people found on the Great Plains.
And that’s why Alaska Natives are watching the glacially slow vote count with great interest.
It’s easy to say that representation matters, and the past few years have proven why a seat at the table is paramount. But the prospect of Alaska Natives getting a voice in Congress is something else — especially since they’ve never had one. While lobbyists for Alaska Natives are quick to praise senior state Sen. Lisa Murkowski for being a consistent ally, they note that there’s a difference between having an advocate in the room and one of their own. And with hundreds of billions of dollars on the balance sheet, Peltola could impress his new colleagues in a way that neither Murkowski nor Young ever could. After all, it’s one thing to distribute cash in the abstract. It’s quite another when you’re sitting at a conference table and have to tell someone that their claim to the pool is less valid than someone else’s.
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