Scott Stansbury/SSP Studio & Gallery
Francine Kiefer, the Monitor's West Coast bureau chief, observes the northern lights, aurora borealis, in the Alaska sky Dec. 1, 2022.

Practical politics: Where a veteran reporter looked, and what she found

Most Americans say they favor constructive politics over partisan bickering. Our reporter found a case study in bridge-building in Alaska. She looked into why it unfolded there, and how. 

The ‘Alaska Way’

Loading the player...

Francine Kiefer has seen her share of political brinkmanship. Plenty of bridge-building, too. Like many Americans, the former congressional correspondent, now the Monitor’s West Coast bureau chief, has a preference for the latter.

That’s part of what drew her to report a recent story from Alaska.  

A race for the traditionally red state’s lone House seat had been won in a special election by Mary Peltola, an Alaska Native and a Democrat. It was what came next that really piqued Francine’s interest. Representative Peltola had hired the chief of staff of her late Republican predecessor, and then hired two other Republican staffers.

“This just doesn’t happen in Washington,” Francine says on the Monitor’s “Why We Wrote This” podcast. “And I was curious about what kind of person it was that would make sort of a practical decision to hire folks who knew Alaska, who knew Washington, even though they’re not of your own political party.” (Representative Peltola’s mother’s side of the family is Alaska Native and all Democrats; her father’s side is white Nebraska wheat farmers and all Republicans.)

What Francine produced: a story about the “Alaska way” at the root of such thinking. It’s about interdependence. And while there are many factors at play in Alaska politics – ranked choice voting among them – it’s really about something that might transfer beyond the 49th state.

As Representative Peltola told Francine: “You know, we have been civil before. If we’ve been civil before, we can do it again.”

Show notes

Here’s the story that Francine discusses with Sam in this episode: 

She also spoke about the story with podcaster Arnie Arnesen. (Francine appears at around the 30-minute mark.) 

Here’s a piece on bipartisanship in the Pennsylvania state legislature by colleague Story Hinckley that Francine recommends:

On the bridge-builder theme: Our friends at the Common Ground Committee also recently produced a podcast episode on constructive political dialogue that featured the Monitor’s Simon Montlake.

You can find links to more of Francine’s work at her staff bio page

And to explore Monitor stories grouped by their underlying values, see our new News & Values page.

Episode transcript


Samantha Laine Perfas: Welcome to "Why We Wrote This." I'm today's host, Samantha Laine Perfas. 

I'm joined by Francine Kiefer, a longtime, award-winning staff writer at the Monitor. She's currently based in the Los Angeles area and operates as our West Coast bureau chief. Previously, she reported out of Washington on Congress and the White House. Today, she's here to talk about a story she recently reported in Alaska looking at how "the Alaska way" might be a step in the right direction towards a more moderate governance. Thanks for joining me, Francine. 

Francine Kiefer: Thanks for having me. 

Laine Perfas: So what was it that piqued your interest about Alaska? 

Kiefer: I have to admit that I've just been wanting to get back to Alaska for over 40 years. It was the scene of where I had my first job in journalism, at the Anchorage Daily News. I was just a pipsqueak intern, and I fell in love with the state and I've just always wanted to go back. And the political story was a fantastic reason. Here you have a red state. And it just elected two moderates to Congress. Lisa Murkowski returning … a Republican senator, but very moderate. And then for the first time in almost 50 years, [Alaskans elected] a Democrat to its lone House seat. Her name is Mary Peltola. She was the first Alaska Native to be elected ever to Congress. And her whole persona is a bridge builder. One of the things that really got my attention was when I read that Mary Peltola had hired the chief of staff of her Republican predecessor, Don Young. She hired his Republican former chief of staff, his Republican scheduler, and she hired a Republican spokesperson from another office on the Hill. And I was curious about what kind of person it was that would make sort of a practical decision to hire folks who knew Alaska, who knew Washington, even though they're not of your own political party. She's just a fascinating person. 

Laine Perfas: Yeah, I'd actually love to hear a little bit more about her. What was she like? What was it like talking to her for this story? 

Kiefer: I've talked to many lawmakers over my journalistic career, and she sounded so authentic. She didn't have her guard up. She wasn't being measured about what she was saying. She is from an area in western Alaska that depends on fishing for survival. And she's been fishing since she was six years old. She, as the Alaskans say, “She knows how to fill a freezer.” And she also embraces the spirit of Alaska. It's a large state. It's a beautiful state, but it's also a cold and a dangerous place. And people rely on each other. And there's a real spirit of cooperation there where people help each other out in tough spots. And that kind of leads to this bridge builder, moderate, having to help each other out, that is part of the “Alaska spirit.” 

Laine Perfas: I think it's interesting to think about how this spirit of Alaska might be different than other parts of the US. How did you see that affecting the political arena? Did it affect the way that candidates interacted with their potential constituents? 

Kiefer: It definitely did, because of the way that ranked-choice voting works. That allows voters to rank their choices in order of preference such that the one with the broadest appeal emerges from the system. When you're out there on the campaign trail, you're not only trying to get people to vote for you as their first choice, but you're [also] trying to get people to vote for you as their second choice. I talked with a local candidate for the state Alaska Senate. And she said this time because of ranked-choice voting instead of knocking only on the doors of the Republican base, she knocked on over 6,000 doors, including many Democrats’, and they would open their door to her and say, "You don't want to talk to me. I'm a Democrat." And her answer was, "Oh, yes, I do want to talk to you because you can put me as your No. 2 vote. And we may not agree on everything, but here is the stuff that we do agree on." And in the end, it was votes from Democrats who had ranked her second, who put her over the line into the majority. 

Laine Perfas: In the beginning of the conversation, you referred to Peltola as a "bridge builder." What is the value of having someone like that in office? 

Kiefer: I think it has two main impacts. One is it can help restore civility to a political dialogue and the other one is it can build understanding and mutual understanding among lawmakers, and hopefully lead to compromise. One of my sources for this story was a gentleman named Andrew Halcro. He's a Republican. He talked to me about the time in which he served as a freshman legislator in the Alaska House at the state Capitol in Juneau. Right off the bat, within a few days of his arriving, he gave a speech where he said, you know, the way to solve Alaska's fiscal problems is to cut the budget. Cut, cut, cut. And he pointed to rural Alaska, which is where most Alaska Natives live as the place [where the budget] needed to be cut. And this speech did not go over well. And within hours, he said, Mary Peltola, who of course, is from this region, knocked on his door and said, "You know, I know we're both new here, but let me explain to you a little bit about what I know about rural Alaska and what their needs are." And he said that out of this discussion came a wonderful working relationship with her, as well as understanding and appreciation for the needs of a part of Alaska that he had never set foot in except for sport. So you get a sense there of the relationship building, of the understanding that can come about by having bridge builders in a legislature. At the same time, there are limits. And Mary Peltola also said to me, look, she can't singlehandedly solve the political divide in the United States, but she can do her job of being a model in the way she communicates and the way she reaches out for other political leaders. 

Laine Perfas: Do you think what we're seeing in Alaska could be transferable to the rest of the country? 

Kiefer: Well, definitely the voting system could be. Ranked choice voting has been practiced by Maine in a more limited sense since 2018. And in this very past election in November, Nevadans voted for a system very similar to what Alaska is practicing. So that part of it, I think, could be replicable. The other part of this that we've talked about is “the Alaska spirit,” which is that cooperative spirit. I think that is rather specific to Alaska. And in fact, people told me that. But as Peltola said to me, it's not exclusive to Alaskans, right? And she said, "You know, we have been civil before. If we've been civil before, we can do it again." 

Laine Perfas: Well, thank you so much, Francine, for sharing your thoughts with me. 

Kiefer: Oh, you're so welcome. 


Laine Perfas: Thanks for listening. To find a transcript and our show notes, which include links to some of Francine's work, go to This episode was hosted and produced by me, Samantha Laine Perfas, edited by Clay Collins. Alyssa Britton was our engineer, with original music by Noel Flatt. Produced by the Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2023.