LEVER TIME - Meet Alaska’s First Democratic Rep. In Almost 50 Years
1:21AM Feb 8, 2023
Rep. Mary Peltola
private equity firms
everyone, welcome to another episode of leverage time the flagship podcast from the lever, an independent investigative news outlet. I'm your host, David Sirota on today's show, I'm going to be talking with Democratic Congresswoman Mary Peltola, who represents Alaska's at large congressional district. That's right. They actually elected a Democrat in Alaska. And they did it with rank choice voting. Mary made history last year as the first Alaska Native elected to Congress, the first woman to represent Alaska in the US House. And as I alluded to the first Democrat to represent the state in a half century in the US House, I spoke with Mary about how she pulled off her historic win. And her advice for national Democrats. She was one of the only Democrats to defy the Biden administration, and recently vote against breaking rail workers strike for paid sick days she voted against it, while Biden and the other Democrats voted to break that strike. I also talked to Mary about the fossil fuel industry since oil drilling is such a huge industry in Alaska. If you don't know Mary, this is a great chance for you to get to know her. This week. Our paid subscribers will also get a bonus segment, my interview with financial manager Marlena Sohn, who recently made huge news for disclosing some of the shady and some say illegal investment practices being carried out by one of America's most famous wealthy families, the Gettys. Our conversation is a really fascinating inner look at the great lengths, the ultra wealthy go to shield their huge wealth. If you want access to overtime premium, you can head over to lever news.com To become a supporting subscriber that gives you access to all of our premium bonus content. And you'll be directly supporting the investigative journalism that we do here at the lever. Speaking of which, if you're looking for other ways to support our work, share our reporting with your friends and family leave this podcast a rating and review on the podcast player you're listening to it on. The only way that independent media grows is by word of mouth. And we need all the help we can get to combat the inane bullshit. That is corporate media. As always, I'm here with producer Frank, what's up producer Frank,
not doing too well today. David, the heat in my building has been off since yesterday morning. And I live on the east coast and it is the middle of winter. So it's been a it's been a rough 24 hours in my household. I will tell you that.
That is not very cool. Or actually it's it's too cool. It's too cold. I'm sorry to hear that. That's that's a real bummer. But this is a big week for you. Your podcast on the levers Podcast Network has just launched. So let's talk take a second and remind folks what the new podcast is and where they can go get it.
That's right. That's more important to talk about than the heat in my building. The new podcast is called movies versus capitalism. It is an idea that I have been developing for well over a year I think we talked when in my interview we talked about the idea for this show. It's myself and my co host Revco Rivera, a dear friend of mine from college, we went to acting school together to the theater school. And in this podcast, we have a guest on guest picks a movie we watched the movie and then we discussed the movies politics.
I heard I heard you have a fantastic first guest on your show. Just a really brilliant, amazing first guest on your first show.
Hey, it was pretty good. It was alright. Yeah, no, David is in fact, the guests on our first episode we talked about one of your favorites Ghostbusters. And had a really great conversation. So yeah, it's like you know, we watch a movie we talk about its politics. We talk about how it relates to capitalism. It's the intersection of pop culture and politics it's it's it's a good niche. I think
Ghostbusters is a good one to start with, because I'm not going to give anything away. People should go over to the website. Frank, where can they find it? What's the website?
MVC? pod.com? Like movies versus Yeah, movies versus capitalism, MVC pod.com.
And as I said, Ghostbusters is a good one to start with, because you may think Ghostbusters is about chasing ghosts. I think it's about a message where the film is saying that the government can't solve any problems. The EPA is the problem. And we have to leave our problems to private mercenary corporations to solve those problems. They really right wing message baked into that movie, you'll have to go over to MVC pod.com to go listen to the first episode. Now, before we get to our main story. Speaking of private corporations, I want to talk about a quick story that I reported this past week for the lever about a potential Wall Street time bomb for We're workers and retirees. If you didn't read the story, I want you to go over to lever news.com. And check it out. It's it's, I know I reported it, but I was reporting things that are really important that and things that don't get very much attention. Earlier this month PitchBook, the premier news outlet that covers the private equity industry, it declared in no uncertain terms, quote, that private equity returns are a major threat to pension plans, ability to pay retirees in 2023. So what are we talking about your private equity? Speaking about movies, private equity is sort of like Gordon Gekko, the idea being Gordon Gekko takes over companies restructures them, and then tries to sell them at a profit. Actually, in fairness, Gordon Gekko didn't do that. Sir Larry does that if you know the movie Wall Street, the Tarrant stamp character is more of a sort of classic private equity guy. But anyway, the point is, is that private equity firms buy up companies. in the classic sense, this is what they do they buy up companies, change them around, purportedly make them more valuable to the changes and then sell them at a profit for four. And that generates the returns. The problem is, is that when they buy up the companies, it's not clear how much the companies are worth. The buyers of the companies, they use pension money to buy the company's pensions, invest in private equity firms, private equity firms then use the money to buy up companies, the private equity firms go back to the pension fund and say, hey, yeah, that company we just bought for 10 million, hey, that company is now worth $15 million. And the pension fund says, Oh, great, that means we're gonna get these returns later on when you sell the company for $15 million or more. The problem is, is that that $15 million valuation that's created by the private equity firm itself, it's not an independent, verifiable, transparent valuation. It's just what the private equity firms says the asset is worth. And you don't really know what the asset is worth, until the other end of the transaction when the private equity firm sells the asset, which is then used for the returns that the pension system is relying on to pay benefits. So what's really going on here, what these new warnings are saying is that private equity firms may have told their pension officials that the assets that they have underneath their investments were worth much more than they actually are than they actually can be sold for. All while of course, those private equity firms were skimming billions and billions of dollars of fees off the investments, by one estimate $600 billion in fees were transferred, skimmed effectively off the investments by pensions. That was the 600 Billions skimmed in fees, that's just the fees to private equity firms, hedge funds and real estate firms. So the scheme is use pension money to buy companies that have no public valuation insist that the companies are worth a lot more than they are skim fees off those inflated values, then when the economy goes south, and you actually can't sell those companies for the valuations that you the private equity firms said they were worth, you return less money to the pension systems, and they were relying on to pay millions and millions of retired teachers, firefighters, public employees, and not just the retirees, but the workers who are saving for their retirement. That's the scheme that's the time bomb. And you now have the SEC investigating the so called write downs. That's the technical term for it private equity firms are writing down the value of of those investments. And what that really means is they're they're changing what they say the underlying investments are worth. This should be terrifying. And what should be specific, even more terrifying, is the fact that guess what, if you're a teacher, and you're listening to this, if you're a firefighter and you're listening to this, you're a government employee or, or a retiree, and you're listening to this, and you're saying, you know, I want to go check out my pension fund, I want to go see the contract between my pension fund and the private equity firm that has let's say, a billion dollars of our pension money. I want to see the contract. I want to see the fee terms. I want to see what they can do with my money. You're not allowed to see the contract. That's right. The Wall Street firms went to every state in the country about 1015 years ago and passed exemptions from open records laws basically saying that these contracts between the pension funds, managing your retirement money and Wall Street firms, those are secret, those are not subjected to open records laws at the state or local level. So you as a retiree can't see how your money is being managed, you got a time bomb potentially in there, you got some warnings that the investments aren't worth what they what they've been, they've said their worth that the firm's have set their worth. And it's all in the dark. That is the Wall Street time bomb. That's what we covered in our story. And every retiree, government employee, former public sector retiree needs to know about this, because this is happening right now, in real time. I've been covering this for for a long time. And it as I've said before, in my view, it is one of the largest ongoing upward transfers of wealth from workers to Wall Street that's been going on and largely goes uncovered in America. It's an incredible upward transfer of wealth. It's super, super scary. So go take a look at that story.
Yeah, I, after reading the story, I posted it to all of my socials simply to be like, hey, like friends and family, I know some of you, your parents, your grandparents, our teachers were public, you know, like, had government jobs like this is important, you need to see this because this, this could very well affect their retirement savings.
100%. And they need to see it because they more than anybody can put at least some pressure on their local or state pension board to get out of these investments. Why are we living in a country where billions of dollars of workers retirement savings can be put into secret investments that charge huge fees. And one other point that oftentimes do not outperform in terms of in terms of investor returns do not outperform a lower fee, stock index fund. That's the crazy that's one of the craziest parts of the story, that if you go and buy a Vanguard fund or a, you know, an s&p 500 Fund, in many cases, that costs you almost nothing very, very low fee, and you will get the same or better returns than the pension fund that's putting billions of dollars into super high fee secret investments run by not so coincidentally, a handful of billionaires on Wall Street. That's the Wall Street time bomb. Okay, we're gonna take a quick break, go find that story at lever news.com. After the break, we'll be right back with my interview with Alaska Congresswoman Mary Peltola. Welcome back to labor time. For our big interview. Today I'll be speaking with Democratic Congresswoman Mary Peltola, who represents Alaska at large congressional district the entire state of Alaska. Mary was elected to an open congressional seat last August during a special election. And then she was reelected three months later, during the 2020 midterms. As I mentioned up top, Mary made history as the first Alaska Native elected to Congress, the first woman to represent Alaska in the US House and the first Democrat to represent the state in the US House in a half century. Not only that, her opponent in both of the races that she won was one of the most famous Alaska Republican politicians, Sarah Palin. Mary is known in her home state for being a real Alaskan having spent her childhood years fishing king salmon with her dad. And during college she worked as a herring and salmon technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She was elected to the Alaska State legislature when she was only 24 years old, and was known for being uncommonly kind for a politician. In fact, her opponent Sarah Palin even calls Mary a quote, sweetheart, I spoke with Mary about how she pulled off her historic win, and her advice for national Democrats. We also spoke about how she was one of the few Democrats who opposed forcing the railroad unions to accept the contract brokered by the Biden administration. I also asked Mary about Alaska's economic dependency on the oil and gas industry in the face of the climate crisis. Congressman Peltola thanks so much for being with us.
Good to be with you, David. Thanks for having me.
So the first question we should start with is how you actually won in Alaska. I think people think of Alaska as a has been for a long time a Republican stronghold, and your win was historic and a lot of ways you're the first Alaska Native, elected to Congress, the first woman to represent Alaska and the US House, the first Democrat to represent the state in half a century and you defeated one of the most famous Alaska Republicans of all time, Sarah Palin. So let's start there. What do you think it was about your politics, your campaign and even the election year itself that resonated with Alaska voters? who traditionally vote for Republicans?
Well, we have a new system, and it is one that is outside the party primaries. And I think that that really changed the playing field to a huge degree. I do not think I would have made it out of a Democratic primary, I'm not liberal enough. And then, with the different type of voting that we had, I spent a lot of time on the phone. You know, they say call time is winning time. And there were a lot of Alaskans. I spoke with one on one and I, my MO, my modus operandi was to not ever let them go until they were ready. They were done talking, we all we always, you know, I think in a lot of campaign training, they say anything over five minutes is a waste of time. Certainly in Alaska. That's not true. Alaskans love to talk and visit and we're all about one degree of separation from each other. We all have people in common. So that helped, but really spending time with folks on the phone. And then I think the larger thing for me, was not using canned partisan rhetoric, or the National type of verbiage. It just doesn't. We're different in Alaska. And we talk differently, we have kind of different outlooks, I think, on a lot of things. So I think it was just staying true to Alaska news,
what you describe kind of reminds me of when I lived in Montana, it sounds like a very, very similar to everybody is one degree of separation from everybody else. I want to hone in a little bit on for a second here on on the rank choice voting system. I mean, you're you're basically saying you probably wouldn't have one without the rank choice system. And some people may hear that and say, oh, you know, the rank choice system then must be rigged or tilted for the for the Democrats? Why don't you just explain how it worked? And how you think it benefited not only your candidacy, but how you think it benefits? Voters?
Well, you know, when I say I wouldn't have gotten here with without rank choice voting what what the only thing I mean by that I, you know, when you look at the numbers in the general, or after we got to the final for the numbers work in my favor, whether it was rank choice or not, but to make it through the partisan primary, you have to really be partisan. And really, you know, and this is, I want to be careful when I say this, but to people who are not deeply embedded in the partisan system, it feels like two cults. And if you're not, you know, onboard with every single thing on their platform, it's really hard to get elected and then what you know, everybody can see it. It's we've it's been happening before our eyes. The Democrats tried to out Democrat each other and the Republicans tried out Republican each other, and then you get these very disparate values and belief systems, and there isn't much, you know, touching in the Venn diagram, by the time it gets to the general. And then it's a real tough choice, you know, do you go far left or far right, and the beauty of the rank choice system, and I want to say for the record, party, Democrats hate this as much as Party Republicans, and I hope that's of some solace to the folks who don't like rank choice voting. It's, it's not appealing to either side, because they don't get to control who the ultimate candidates are in the general.
Let's talk about what's going on in Alaska. I mean, Alaska was in the news. Very recently, the national news about a Biden administration decision on climate one magazine, this was the headline Biden's recent climate decisions, will close minds protect salmon and may permit drilling in Alaska, why don't you tell us a little bit about about what what was decided what you think was good about it, what you may have questions about
now, are you referring to Willow or the Tongass Willow. Now, that wasn't a decision and ultimate decision. That's just part of the permitting process. So the Department of Interior forwarded the final environmental impact statement for Willow. And a lot of compromises have been made on both sides here. The project initially had five drilling pads, they, you know, through this iterative process, and now they're in the fifth iteration. They're an alternative II, where it's down to three drilling pads. And again, this this has not been smooth sailing. This has not been a slam dunk. This has been a lot of machinations. The village corporation for no exit, which is the village within the project footprint, they'll have six huge trucks going past their community every day. They'll have huge these huge industrial trucks going past on their road at one Every six minutes. So this is a very big life change of big change for the community of new exit, but their village corporation voted to support the project. And it's not unanimous. And it wasn't an easy decision, there was a lot of soul searching done. And a lot of recognition that there, these board members, grandchildren and great grandchildren who are already alive will be impacted. So, you know, this isn't I don't, I don't want people to think that Alaskans are that this is an easy choice for any of us. But the project is moving forward, we're happy to see that we're very concerned that the project isn't happening in a timeline that will make it economic enough for the company, and they'll take their business elsewhere. And the reason this is so important, for me is because Alaska's economy, over 80% of our economy is dependent on oil to you know, just our revenue is our state revenues alone, over 80% is derived from oil, revenues, oil royalties, so and that means everything, we're constitutionally required at the state level, to provide education, public safety, and public transportation, we wouldn't be able to do any of those things, let alone our retirement system, or some of our other big obligations, if we don't have oil revenue. And the end we've been, there's been this feeling of being on the precipice of fall at you know, being ready to fall off a cliff, for 20 years, at least. So we're very concerned about making sure we have enough money to keep our state government on the rails. And then on top of that, we haven't had growth in Alaska for over 15 years, we've been in the negative eight, economic growth area for 15 years, which is really bad. And you can you can sense it in households. And so those those type of jobs that Willow would provide, are very impactful, you know, down to a person, about a third of our economy or a third of our workforce is tied to oil and gas. And, of course, we all want to transition of course, we all want to be on renewables. But we recognize we need gas oil.
So let me let me ask that the bigger question than representing Alaska, and you touched on this, that, you know, energy production and climate change are both at the forefront, the state is getting hit hard by climate change. The state is also as you say, dependent on oil, its revenues, our will and gas or oil is a fairly big employer, huge employer in Alaska. And during the pandemic, the oil companies cut, I think was 3000 jobs. So I guess my the question that comes out of that is representing a state that's both on the forefront of the climate crisis, but also dependent on oil. How do you think about those issues? And what do you say to folks who say, Listen, we got to get off oil ASAP? I mean, it's the the international climate scientists have said, No more new oil and gas development. How do you think about that? What do you say to that science?
Well, and again, I said just a minute ago, we all want to transition to renewables as quickly as we can. Having said that, that still means that transitions take decades, any any major change in our culture, or infrastructure takes decades. You look at every social movement, you look at a lot of the infrastructure development, it just takes a lot of time. And even with these huge investments, even with technological advances, and a lot of this technology being off the shelf technology now, it's still very slow going. So what you know and I and I want you know, one of the things I don't think we talk about enough is the fact that if we don't have petroleum, it will be an economic Armageddon, society will not look like it does now it we won't be able to get produce from Whole Foods or, you know, everything relies on diesel, every single all the trans every single thing that you can see in your sitting room or everything I see in my the where I'm sitting is brought to us by diesel, whether it's freight trains, or cargo airline cargo or semi trucks, barges, it all runs on diesel. How do we get our goods to market without this commodity? Most of our houses in rural Alaska are heated by stove oil. How do I transition you know I'm paying 50 Something cents I think we're 30 Something cents a kilowatt hour for my electricity in my hometown. Villages are paying 56 or 63 cents a kilowatt hour for their electricity. We can't just transition to Well, electric heat, in the winter months, we can't rely on solar wind, we don't have the capacity to hold that energy in order for it to be accessible all the time. So these are just unfortunate realities that we're working through as we go. The other thing I want to say is, if we stop producing petroleum in America, we'll still have to get it other places, whether it's, you know, Venezuela, you know, and in places that are not pro democracy in places that don't have a high regard for labor laws, or environmental protections. And, you know, I think a lot of people think that this is some kind of industry lip service. But honestly, realistically, how are we going to do this transition as quickly as we can, without recognition that there will be a need for gap oil.
So you mentioned labor, I want to end and products getting to market that that's a good segue to the end of last year, you were one of the few House members, who opposed forcing railroad unions to accept the contract imposed on them by the Biden administration, a contract effectively breaking a potential railroad worker strike, you were one of only eight Democrats who voted against that move to impose that contract. Tell us a little bit about that vote, why you chose not to side with the railroad billionaires, and not to side with the Biden administration, who were helping those big railroad companies impose that contract on workers.
Well, that vote I was voting entirely with my heart On that vote, I had just my whole campaign team, we had just finished the election. And then we all got hit with a terrible flu bug or some something. And we were leveled. For days, I had been planning a trip with my family, we canceled the trip, we were all leveled. And I, you know, and I was still recovering from that illness when we were voting on it. And I clearly needed sick days to get well, again, I needed to be resting completely for three or four days, when I was hit with that. So it was very top of mind. I think that clearly those the railroad workers, that's a very tough job, it's a very physically demanding job, it's very treacherous to be in that line of work. And all of those things don't, you know, don't lend themselves to working out well, if you're under the weather. So it just made sense. And, you know, I am uncomfortable with the thought that these railroad workers, they can't take their kid to the doctor, they can't go to the doctor themself on short notice, and we're human, we get sick. So it just, it seemed like a real no brainer for me. And I was very happy to stand by that vote.
So let me ask if there if you think there are any lessons. Yeah, at the beginning of this interview, you mentioned the the National Democratic Party framing doesn't really work necessarily the talking points, the language doesn't really work in a place like Alaska, you being in the house, if somebody one of your colleagues from the lower 48 came to you and said, Listen, what do you think we need to do as a party to change to to win in places like you represent? What would you tell them? What would the 234 things you tell them to do?
Number one, tune out from national news tune out from national talking points are, we like to think we're a global economy or, you know, we like to think that we're somewhat homogenous. One of the things I've really learned and working in Washington, DC is what an enormous Empire we have. Everyone has these regional dialects. We all have our regional food, food brands, we're really a lot of different cultures within a culture. And I think you really have to focus on the culture you're representing.
Essentially, what I hear you saying is that elections don't necessarily have to be nationalized. So but it sometimes feels like a politics is so is so nationalized, which is a good segue to the to the final question I have for you about the state of the US House. I mean, right now, people tuned in to what's going on in the US House, and it feels like I mean, from my view, it feels like the house is constantly arguing with itself making headlines about various it's not that they're fake scandals, but a lot of performance, a lot of sound and fury. You know, the Kevin McCarthy votes or whether he was going to become speaker and now they're the attempt to move to move Ilhan Omar off of a committee. It's it seems very odd I'm like a huge performance. My question then for you is, what do you expect? What do you hope can actually be done in an institution? Like the US House? Which right now seems so dysfunctional? I mean, what are your What are your hopes for, for realistic hopes for legislation in the next few years?
I'm actually very optimistic. I'm happy to say that there and it is depressing seeing these performances, it's, you know, there, there are some moments where I think, Boy, this guy is or gal is really auditioning for something here. But behind the scenes, you know, for every performer, there are 50 really hard workers who are not, don't they, I get the sense they're not here for performances and theatrics. And, and I, the two committees that I am fortunate enough to have been selected to serve on Resources Committee and transportation committee, natural resources and transportation and infrastructure, I should say, both of them. There have been overt messages from the chairman and the ranking members, this is going to be a very boring committee. That was that was the transportation message. And it was music to my ears. I want boring committees, I want committees where it's nothing but hard work. And, you know, no pandering for cameras or airtime. And even in resources, there tends to be I think, a lot more performance type work going on there. But I had a really good conversation with the chairman on Friday on Thursday where he said, you know, those things will happen but the you know, the members like yourself and me who are bipartisan or nonpartisan, we can get a lot of work done. If we can just be patient and let those you know, flare ups happen and then get back to work. Mary
Peltola is the Democratic Congresswoman for Alaska's out large statewide congressional districts. You can follow her on Twitter at Mary Peltola. Congresswoman, thank you so much for taking the time today.
Thank you, David. It was a pleasure.
That's it for today's show. As a reminder, our paid subscribers who get overtime premium get to hear our bonus segment, my interview with financial manager and whistleblower Marlena sun. She recently made big news for disclosing some of the shady tax evasion techniques being used by one of America's most famous wealthy families, the getting
all the trustee, the family members who were trustees were living in California, emailing texting back and forth going to family dinners talking about the trust and it just didn't strike me as being honest.
listeners can subscribe to lever time premium by heading over to lever news.com. When you subscribe, you also get access to all of the Levers website, our weekly newsletters and our live events. And that's all for the criminally low price of eight bucks a month or 70 bucks for the year. One last favor, please be sure to like subscribe and write a review for lever time on your favorite podcast app. And make sure to head over to lever news.com and check out all of the incredible reporting our team has been doing. Until next time, I'm David Sirota rock the boat