Defining Alaska Sen. Begich: Centrist or liberal?

McClatchy NewspapersApril 2, 2013 

WASHINGTON -- In the hyper-partisan world of Washington politics, it's not surprising that there are two competing narratives about Mark Begich's four-plus years in office as a first-term senator.

One narrative belongs to Begich and his backers: He's "an Alaska Democrat," a pragmatic, results-oriented centrist with a wide independent streak worthy of the nation's last frontier state.

"I think I've been in some ways a thorn in the side of Democrats and the president at times," Begich said earlier this month in his Capitol Hill office -- which, fitting his self-image as a lunch-bucket lawmaker, has a view of a brick wall an arm's reach from the window behind his desk. "But I came here not to follow the status quo."

Begich ousted longtime incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in November 2008, winning by fewer than 4,000 votes just eight days after Stevens was convicted on federal corruption charges. The conviction was overturned in April 2009, and Stevens died 16 months later in a plane crash near Dillingham.

The second narrative comes from the former Anchorage mayor's foes in a red state that 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried by 14 points: He's a typical liberal who's supported President Barack Obama's big-government agenda and done the bidding of Senate Democratic leaders.

"I don't really want to get in a tit-for-tat with Mark on a bunch of issues," Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who's weighing a run against Begich next year, said earlier this month. "But I don't believe his core votes in the Senate reflect the electorate who put him in it."

There's evidence to support both narratives.

GUNS AND DRILLING

Begich, 51, is a strong Second Amendment advocate who breaks with most Democrats in opposing a renewal of the assault-weapons ban that lapsed in 2004. Instead, he and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced legislation March 6 to prevent mentally ill people from getting guns.

Begich said he's owned a handgun since he was 16, though he admits he doesn't hunt and is only a marginal marksman.

"Good enough," he said. "You rob my house, you won't make it out."

In another breach of party protocol, Begich promotes expanded oil and natural gas drilling on federal lands, starting with opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.

Every time Obama called him to seek his vote on a key initiative, Begich nudged him to horse-trade for drilling. The senator hasn't persuaded the president yet on ANWR, but Begich says he played an important role in the decision last summer to allow Shell to start exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska's Arctic coast.

"Sen. Begich was a very strong advocate of offshore drilling in the Arctic, where a lot of his Democratic colleagues oppose it," said Andrew Halcro, a former Republican Alaska House member who now heads the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.

"When you look at President Obama approving (Arctic) drilling, that didn't happen by accident," Halcro said.

Begich has also strayed from Democratic dogma in voting multiple times against ending or reducing federal tax subsidies to oil and gas companies, helping to convince Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to drop such a move from the Nevadan's budget proposal, and in voting for development of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas.

In September 2009, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota asked Begich to sign a "bipartisan" letter to then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, asking him to let the Troubled Asset Relief Program expire and to use leftover bank-bailout funds to reduce the federal debt.

When Thune released the letter, Reid called Begich to scold him: Thirty-eight of the 39 signatories were Republicans.

The story still cracks up Begich.

"When John told me the letter was bipartisan, he didn't tell me I was the only Democrat," Begich recalled with laughter.

And in a throwback to how things used to work routinely in Congress but now rarely do, Begich has crossed the aisle to partner with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski on a slew of Alaska-centric issues, often joining forces with Rep. Don Young, also a Republican and Alaska's sole House representative.

Among other causes, they've fought to ban genetically modified salmon from Alaska waters; worked to turn 700,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest over to Sealaska, the Native corporation for Southeast Alaska; and defeated an effort to force the state to pay the federal government $25 million a year for continued mail delivery at standard rates to the Alaska Bush.

Two weeks ago, the two senators announced that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had agreed to review an earlier decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to block a land exchange in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that would allow a gravel road to connect King Cove with the all-weather airport in neighboring Cold Bay.

A DIFFERENT VIEW

But then there is the second narrative.

In this version of Begich's senatorial tenure, he's backed Obama's most important initiatives, led by the $840 billion economic stimulus package in 2009 and the landmark mandatory health insurance law the next year.

Republicans say those two measures increased the deficit and added to the government's already-record $16.7 trillion debt, contradicting Begich's claim that he is a fiscal moderate who vets federal spending closely and is committed to cutting the debt.

The senator's political foes also point to his votes to increase income taxes on well-to-do Americans and to implement the Dodd-Frank system of stiffened regulation of banks and other financial firms; his support for climate change legislation; and his votes to confirm dozens of Obama's judicial and Cabinet nominees, among them the recent controversial choice of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.

Which of these narratives takes the strongest hold will go a long way toward determining whether Begich next year can become the first Alaska Democrat to win re-election to the Senate since Mike Gravel in 1980.

Jennifer Duffy, who tracks the Senate for the Cook Political Report in Washington, rates Begich's re-election bid as leaning in his favor, but she predicts that the race will be a toss-up come next fall after a single Republican foe emerges.

"Against a good candidate, he's going to have a very competitive race," Duffy said. "It's up to the Republicans to produce a good candidate."

Gov. Sean Parnell is waiting until the legislative session ends next month before deciding whether to challenge Begich, a spokeswoman said, but a number of people across the political spectrum in Alaska expect him to eschew a Senate run.

That would leave the field open for Treadwell, who is viewed by some as the leading contender but says he won't jump in if Parnell runs.

Three other possible GOP candidates -- Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, state Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan and 2010 Senate Republican nominee Joe Miller -- declined to be interviewed for this story. Former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman said he too is weighing a run against Begich.

Saying Begich's 2008 win over the tainted Stevens "could be considered a fluke election," Leman added, "His record is very unimpressive, but the national Democrats will do everything they can to protect him."

Alaskan Republicans, meanwhile, want at all costs to avoid anything like the debacles of the past two Senate races.

In 2008, Stevens spent much of the campaign stretch run in a federal courtroom defending himself against charges of covering up having received free home renovations and other gifts from now-defunct Veco Corp. and its chairman, Bill Allen. While his conviction just before the November election was later overturned, it helped Begich dislodge the legendary lawmaker in a one-point upset.

Two years later, Miller rode the tea party wave to another upset victory, this time in a bitter Republican primary that saw him best Murkowski, also an incumbent. Murkowski then ran a write-in campaign to gain re-election in November 2010.

Although Miller emerged from that battle with a blemished reputation in some quarters as a loose cannon and an extremist, he retains a cadre of ardent supporters and a half-million dollars in his campaign chest.

Some Alaska pols believe Miller is intent on running again in a Republican primary they don't think he can win, but one in which he could leave Begich's eventual opponent as damaged goods. With the primary set for August 2014, the victor would have less than three months to recover before the general election.

A SHARED HISTORY

The 2008 Stevens race wasn't the first strange election involving a Begich.

In November 1972, Nick Begich, the senator's father and Alaska's U.S. House representative, defeated then-state Sen. Don Young -- three weeks after Begich's plane disappeared without a trace during a campaign flight from Anchorage to Juneau with U.S. House Majority Leader Rep. Hal Boggs of Louisiana.

A massive 39-day air search for the two congressmen, along with a Begich aide and the pilot, was called off Nov. 24, they were declared dead Dec. 29 and Young won a subsequent special election to assume the House seat he has held since the tragedy.

Mark Begich was 10 at the time. Young has known him almost from his birth.

"I just celebrated 40 years in Congress, and it's ironic that I would pass that milestone while serving with the son of the man I was elected to replace under such sad circumstances," Young said in a recent interview.

"Back then, I would never have thought that Mark, who I've known since he was in diapers, would be my colleague in Congress one day," Young said. "It's because of our long shared personal history that we have been able to work well for Alaska."

As a Democrat in a heavily Republican state, Begich is used to being the underdog. After being elected in 1988 as the youngest member ever of the Anchorage Assembly, at 26, he lost two mayoral campaigns before finally breaking through in 2003, winning by 11 votes. Five years later came his narrow victory over Stevens.

The texting senator

Begich is one of the few senators who give reporters their cell phone number and then exchange texts with them directly. He often chats with journalists while walking between the Capitol and his office across Constitution Avenue in the Senate Russell Building.

Begich is also among a handful of Democratic senators who regularly appear on Fox News, providing him an important conduit to more conservative voters back home.

Belying his frequent descriptions of having an arms-length relationship with "national Democrats" while being focused on Alaska's idiosyncratic needs, Begich accepted a post as chairman of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, which reaches out to diverse populations on behalf of the party.

While it's a feat for a first-term senator to get a leadership spot, Begich's aides urged him to turn it down, fearing it would make him look like a Washington insider. He rejected their advice.

"Why would I give up a chance to sit in the room with our party leaders and tell them how a moderate Democrat thinks?" Begich explained.

Begich has taken newly elected Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana under his wing. Both ran as centrists in red states, and the three see themselves as forming an unofficial self-described Senate caucus of centrists.

As Alaska's junior senator, Begich treads a narrow line between representing constituents who oppose big government and following Stevens' path of bringing home billions of dollars in federal aid for the state's wilderness areas, Native peoples, military bases, oil and gas companies, tourism firms and other recipients.

Begich admits that his job is harder since Congress banned earmarks two years ago over his and Murkowski's objections; Stevens' "bridge to nowhere" had drawn national ridicule for Stevens' efforts to fund the span from Ketchikan to its airport on Gravina Island.

"In Alaska and the Arctic, earmarks were not about wasteful spending," Begich said. "They were about spending money that met community needs."

Bill Popp, head of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., has been friends with Begich since their teens, when Begich started a nightclub for young people called the Motherlode and Popp spun records as a deejay.

Popp, who voted for Stevens multiple times and admires the late senator, said the earmark ban will challenge Begich, Murkowski and Young to fully help their state.

"We still have communities that don't have public water or sewers," he said. "A significant part of our population doesn't have access to the Internet. Those are the kinds of issues that earmarks helped address in the past."

When Begich sees an ad with a United States map that only shows the mainland, with Alaska left off, he fires off a protest letter. A conference room wall in his Senate suite displays framed "before" and "after" maps -- without and with Alaska -- next to letters of abject apology from the heads of offending trade groups and companies such as the National Mining Association, Honda, BP, the American Petroleum Institute and AT&T.

Begich is more at ease talking about excessive federal spending when he shifts from Alaska to the country as a whole. He pokes fun at an agency within the Homeland Security Department called the Private Sector Office, which he discovered as a member of the Senate's homeland security oversight committee. "No one's ever heard of it," he cracks.

Yet the office's mission is to work with business owners about their firms' security needs and to heed their concerns, something that Alaska Shell and other big oil companies might appreciate.

Begich would also like to do away with the government-run United States Institute of Peace, a favorite mark of Republicans though it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

"It's a great purpose, but we spend $30 million to $40 million a year," Begich said. "It's a think tank. We can't afford some of these things."

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service