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Democrat Mary Peltola hopes to keep lead over GOP's Sarah Palin in Alaska election

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Alaskans will learn tomorrow whether they've elected former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin to the U.S. House. They voted in an August 16 special election to fill the state's lone House seat for a partial term. The initial results have Palin trailing a little-known Democrat, Mary Peltola. If she wins, Peltola would be the first Alaska Native ever elected to Congress. Alaska Public Media's Liz Ruskin reports from Peltola's hometown of Bethel.

(SOUNDBITE OF EQUIPMENT LANDING IN BOAT)

LIZ RUSKIN, BYLINE: Mary Peltola can't wait to get on the river. The wind and rain have let up. The tide is favorable. She's throwing things into her open aluminum boat - buckets, an anchor, waterproof gloves.

MARY PELTOLA: Everybody has a float coat?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If by float coat you mean life jacket.

PELTOLA: Yeah.

RUSKIN: Bethel is a town of 6,000 on the Kuskokwim Delta, upriver from the Bering Sea. Most people here are Indigenous - Yup'ik, like Peltola. She's pulled salmon from this river since she was a child. But for this fishing trip, she has a camera crew with her because, whatever the outcome of the special election, Peltola will also be on the ballot in November. She needs footage of her fishing for TV ads. It's cumbersome.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I want to put this inside here, just to have a mic on you.

PELTOLA: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's going to be, like, right here, but we don't have to hide it under that jacket.

PELTOLA: Right this minute?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, we can do it up the river...

PELTOLA: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...If we need to.

PELTOLA: Thank you. Thank you.

RUSKIN: There's a more serious problem with this fishing trip - there are no fish. It's a tragedy beyond words for this region. Protecting salmon is a major campaign theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER FLOWING)

RUSKIN: Mary Peltola is 48. She's the daughter of a Yup'ik mom and a dad from Nebraska who went north to teach school. As she drives her skiff through the braided Kuskokwim, she points out the bank where her great grandparents lived and, on the other side, where her mother was born.

PELTOLA: Yeah, this is kind of the center of my universe just because my uncles taught me exactly where to put the net to get certain kinds of fish.

RUSKIN: Scientists suspect climate change is a reason why the salmon aren't returning to this river. Some tributaries are open to fishing. So mostly for the camera, Peltola feeds a small curtain of net into the water. She reels it back in - empty.

PELTOLA: I stay hopeful right until the end because sometimes you get lucky right on the very end meshes.

RUSKIN: At age 24, Peltola ran for State House and beat an incumbent. She stayed in office a decade, overlapping with then-Governor Sarah Palin. They bonded in the state capital as two pregnant moms in office. Palin didn't respond to interview requests. She vilifies Democrats in general, but recently called Peltola a sweetheart. Peltola isn't badmouthing Palin either.

PELTOLA: Oh, yeah.

RUSKIN: Oh, I've seen the photos.

PELTOLA: Yeah, no. Yeah, I think she's great.

RUSKIN: In the legislature, Peltola was known for uncommon kindness.

ANDREW HALCRO: She was never bitter. She was never angry. She was never partisan.

RUSKIN: Andrew Halcro and Peltola were freshman legislators in 1999. The Anchorage Republican ignited fury with a speech that he now regrets, saying bush residents were like children who don't learn to tie their laces because the state keeps sending Velcro shoes. A lot of Alaskans wrote Halcro off as a racist. But within hours, he says, Peltola was at his office door asking if she could offer a different perspective on the rural energy subsidy he derided. Halcro became an ally.

HALCRO: 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.

RUSKIN: Peltola says yelling isn't productive - and not her style.

PELTOLA: The region where I'm from - there is a big premium on being respectful, on not using inflammatory language or harsh tones.

RUSKIN: Peltola says she once diffused an urban Republican legislator just by pointing out that he, decades her senior, had a longer tenure in Alaska than she did. They got on well after that. To her, that's effective politics.

For NPR News, I'm Liz Ruskin in Bethel, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liz Ruskin