Meet the Republican team behind the House’s newest Democrat
Has Mary Peltola started a new staffing trend?
Alex Ortiz thought he was done with Capitol Hill. After a decade as a staffer for “the representative for all Alaska,” Ortiz carried out the sad duty this spring of packing up Don Young’s office after the Republican’s sudden death — even at 88 years old, it still felt sudden.
Clearing out all the taxidermy and tchotchkes Young accumulated over his 49 years in Congress, Ortiz locked up 2314 Rayburn one final time on Aug. 16, and then immediately left town for his first real vacation in over a decade — one without any check-ins with the team, emails that just couldn’t wait, or constituents that needed a quick call. It was along the cobblestone rues of Montreal that he got a message that would upend both his plans to begin lobbying and some long-standing assumptions about partisanship in Washington.
“Out of the blue, I got a text from her, and I was like, ‘Maybe I should shave and get down to D.C. and put a suit on,’” Ortiz said, referring to Mary Peltola, the Democrat who won a special election in August to serve out the less than four months remaining in Young’s term.
And so Ortiz, a lifelong Republican who served as the dean of the House’s last chief of staff, signed up to run a freshman Democrat’s office.
He wasn’t the only one. Two other Republicans joined him in committing partisan apostasy: Young’s longtime scheduler and executive assistant Paula Conru and Josh Wilson, a former Hill staffer and aide to Iowa’s previous governor, Terry Branstad.
When Ortiz and Wilson spoke with Roll Call last week (Conru declined to be interviewed), Peltola had more registered Republicans and independents (four) working for her than Democrats (three). “Which is kind of incredible,” Ortiz said. “And really speaks to a lot of the amazing qualities that she has.”
Both Ortiz and Wilson described themselves as GOPers who decided to work specifically for Mary Peltola, not Republican reprobates.
“I think part of it is an Alaska thing and part of it is a practical thing, because I want to achieve for Alaska,” said Ortiz, who was raised in Ketchikan. “Ultimately, that is far more important to me than party.”
“It’s also about an amazing new member,” he added. “I would not work for any Democrat that came down to D.C. So, it’s really about her too and her being the right person for the state.”
“I looked at it this way: I’m not going to work for a typical Democrat,” said Wilson, Peltola’s interim communications director. “She is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. She’s very authentic. She is extremely bipartisan.”
A question of loyalty
That loyalty to a politician over a party is rare in Washington; when New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew bolted the Democratic Party in 2019, most of his staff quit in disgust.
After a stint working for Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., around the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Wilson returned to his home state of Iowa and began working for Otter Public Relations, a PR firm based in Florida. Peltola’s campaign hired Otter shortly before the special election to help handle the avalanche of media requests that comes your way when you’re making a bid to become the first Democrat to represent Alaska in nearly 50 years and the first Alaska Native in Congress, period, while former Vice President candidate Sarah Palin stands in your way.
For Wilson, Peltola began as just another client, but after just a few weeks working with her, he agreed to see her through to the end of the term in January. He spoke highly of his boss’s staffing strategy. “She wants to hear from everyone and then make informed decisions, and we don’t have enough of that in this town,” he said.
Ortiz noted how close Peltola was with Young. Her parents were good friends and early supporters. “I believe her mom was pregnant with her when she was helping with his first campaign 49 years ago,” Ortiz said. “She gave birth to her while on the campaign trail for Congressman Young. The congressman affectionately always said that [Peltola] was his youngest campaign staffer.”
As Ortiz described how Peltola choked up when she first saw her empty office — the same one Young welcomed her into countless times with a hug, once bustling and brimming with his mementos — his own voice began to waver. “I really feel like she cares deeply about Congressman Young’s legacy. And in Alaska, we’re kind of one big family,” he said. “Loyalty is tremendously important to me and was tremendously important to Congressman Young.”
“And he often spoke about how much he’d love to see a young Native woman in his seat,” Ortiz added. “I don’t think he would have cared a damn about whether she was Democrat or Republican. I think he’d be very happy right now.”
‘I didn’t switch parties’
The news of Ortiz staying on as chief of staff spread quickly, thanks to a man-bites-dog story the Anchorage Daily News ran as she was sworn in on Sept. 13. The reaction has been more good than bad, he said.
“The response from a lot of Alaskans — of all political stripes — has been, ‘Yeah, that makes sense,’” said Ortiz. “It’s been a little bit more mixed down here [in D.C.].”
“Nobody has been bold enough to come up to me and say, ‘How dare you work for somebody on the other side,’ but I’ve definitely heard through the grapevine of other people grousing to other people about me switching sides,” he added. “And I don’t care. I’m going to do right by her, regardless of any spiciness.”
Wilson said a few GOP friends asked him if he was feeling alright and offered to provide some counseling — career or psychiatric — over beers.
“Somebody came up and said, ‘Wow, you of all people are the last person I ever thought would switch parties,’” Wilson recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, I didn’t switch parties. I’m still Republican.’”
While Wilson plans to return to his PR gig when this term ends — “My primary goal would probably be to help find a good replacement for myself, because I unapologetically am very on the record when I say I want to get on a plane back to Iowa as soon as possible,” he said — Ortiz hopes to stay on as Peltola’s chief, assuming, that is, she wins in November and wants him back.
“I would love to keep working for her for as long as she’d have me,” he said. “And if I work for anyone else after that, I wouldn’t want to work for anybody that wasn’t comfortable having Peltola on my resume.”
For Ortiz to have a shot at keeping his job, Peltola will need to repeat her special election performance in just a few weeks’ time. Peltola is again facing Palin and Nick Begich III, another Republican who comes from a family of prominent Alaskan Democrats that includes his grandfather, who held the at-large seat before Young. Peltola benefited in August from Alaska’s new ranked-choice election system when she was the backup option for nearly a third of Begich’s voters, a bipartisan appeal she has credited to her campaign’s focus on “Fish, Family, and Freedom.”
Asked to respond to the cynics who see her ecumenical office as just a Democratic trick for gaining voters in a state that voted for former President Donald Trump by 10 points in 2020, Peltola smiles. “Time will tell,” she said.
It was pure pragmatism, not politics, that guided her heterodox HR decisions. “It just seemed foolish to try to start over brand new with everyone while I’m brand new,” she said.
And, as Wilson noted, the prospects of finding good Democratic staffers who could do the work on Day 1 and grokked the Last Frontier State’s idiosyncrasies for a position that might disappear in a few months were slim at best.
It was also just very Alaskan of her, said Ortiz, who worked for Sen. Ted Stevens before he joined Young’s office. While there are a few more registered Republicans than Democrats in Alaska, most of the state’s voters — 58 percent — are unaffiliated.
“She respects diverse voices in her office,” Ortiz said. “She really carries that Alaska spirit of bipartisanship.”
The enthusiasm Ortiz and Wilson hold for Peltola belies the notion that her bipartisan casting has been little more than political theater.
“She said, ‘When I get to DC, I want to be bipartisan.’ That’s a typical — like, everybody says that,” said Wilson. “But she’s probably the first [Democratic] representative who, when she arrived here, the first thing she did was hire three Republicans.”
“If I lived in Alaska, quite honestly, I would cast my vote for her,” he added. “Also, I can tell you that I fully intend to vote Republican in the midterm elections back in my home state. So, this isn’t a shift to where I’m going to now start voting for Democrats back in my home state.”
Might this be the start of a trend, one that could help stitch together a Congress ripped apart by years of growing partisan fury? Wilson and Ortiz both responded to that question with versions of “I hope so!” and a laugh that implied, “but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Peltola, though, responded more earnestly.
“I think that the partisanship is really a distraction and a barrier to success and getting things done,” said Peltola. “I’m not really sure what else I can say.”