Beltula takes Don Young’s place on a charity hunt, where motives converge
In heavy orange rain gear, Congresswoman Mary Peltola mingled with guests on the deck of Tenacious, a charter boat in Seward. Even before the boat left Seward Harbor, the captain warned of big waves.
“Does everyone use Dramamine?” Beltola asked the guests, some of whom paid thousands of dollars, to come there. “I’ll take it now.”
Peltula, a Democrat, has followed in the footsteps of her Republican predecessor, Don Young, on many policy matters, even stepping in this year to headline a charity fundraiser organized by her predecessor.
Senator Lisa Murkowski has Waterfall, a VIP fishing tournament in the Southeast, to raise money for cancer care. The late Senator Ted Stevens had the Kenai Classic, to support the river. Now Beltola is participating in the Lu Young Children’s Fund Fishing Invitational, a three-day fishing tournament.
The charity is named after Don Young’s first wife. When he died last year, the event was cancelled. It was revived this year with a new twist: “Fish with Mary.”
“I wanted to keep it going,” Peltola said. “I knew Lu Yong. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Lu Yong. This is a great reason.”
But supporting the cause is only one reason to participate.
Charitable fundraisers like these unite lobbyists, their clients, and other well-connected people with a member of Congress, often for hours at a time. They can share a laugh in the tight spaces of a golf cart or fishing boat.
It can seem as if insiders are buying access to people who can help them. But Beltola says that’s not what she sees.
“What I found is that people who are professional lobbyists tend not to attack you in contexts like this because they want you to have fun,” she said. “And then when they’re in your office, you’ll have that shared experience.”
Participants may remain on opposite sides of an issue, but the time spent together allows for the discovery of common interests and the opportunity to see opponents as people rather than enemies.
Congressman Jared Huffman, a progressive Democrat from California, came to the Seward event a few years ago, at the invitation of Don Young. The two often sparred in the House Resources Committee over environmental matters.
“I thought it was a good idea to say yes and bring his fishing tournament and he appreciated it,” Hoffman said. “That definitely contributed to the good relationship we had.”
So Hoffman, who is from one of the bluest parts of California, came to spend a day on a boat with Young and Karl Rove, the former Republican White House political adviser.
It was an odd pairing, but they found common ground, Hoffman said.
“Karl is clearly on the wrong side of my politics. But he is also a historian and has great knowledge of Harry Truman,” Hoffman said.
It turned out to be Young’s last fishing tournament. Huffman said he came this year to honor his good relationship with Young and to help his new Democratic friend, Mary Peltula. He attended a fundraiser for her and other Democrats in Anchorage before traveling to Seward.
Huffman said his campaign paid for his admission, but House ethics rules allow U.S. House representatives to accept free tickets and travel to charity events, such as gala dinners and golf tournaments. The presence of lawmakers tends to boost ticket sales.
“Certainly having members of Congress is a big draw for people to come and see them and talk to them and fish with them,” said Alex Ortiz, who was chief of staff to Young, then Peltola, and now a lobbyist.
He helped coordinate the invitational this year, and his D.C.-based company was the official sponsor of the tournament and an associated dinner at a Seward restaurant. The ceremony was attended by two of his clients, representing telecommunications company Quintillion and Graphite One, which hopes to develop a mine on the Seward Peninsula.
While politicians may be the draw, Ortiz says the tournament has never been about business or politics.
“Well, people certainly like to talk about everything (but) there is definitely no overarching goal,” he said.
And no Republican legislator came to the fish session with Mary. Ortiz hopes to get more into the mix next year.
Mac McHale, president of communications company Quintillion, said the primary goal is to help Alaskan children in need, and that meeting members of Congress is secondary.
“If you can, you know, have a relationship there and at the same time do good for the community, that’s … a double bonus,” McHale said.
Over the past decade, the Low Children’s Fund has generated up to $50,000 from the annual tournament, which is usually its only source of income. In some years the cost was more than what was raised.
The nonprofit gives out a total of $4,000 in grants on average annually, usually to Camp Fire Alaska, and sometimes to Covenant House and Hope Community Resources.
The fund had $135,000 in savings by the end of 2021, the most recent year for which public documents are available.
Plus all the other motivations mixed in at the fundraiser: fishing. It can be a mixed bag. On the first day of the 2023 tournament, everyone stuck to their salmon and halibut limits. The next day, the boats were tossed by rough waves and the captains were back in port before anyone could wet the fishing line.