WASHINGTON — 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.”