Incoming Senator Sees New Era In Alaska Politics
When the new Congress convenes in a few weeks, Alaska will be represented for the first time in nearly 30 years by a Democrat — one who is promising to reform the delegation's longtime practice of seeking billions in federal earmarks for state projects, some of which have become infamous.
Mark Begich defeated the Senate's longest-serving Republican, Ted Stevens, in November in a close race. Stevens, 85, was convicted eight days before the election on corruption charges for lying about gifts he received from a wealthy oil contractor.
Now, the soon-to-be former mayor of Anchorage is becoming accustomed to his new surroundings in the nation's capital. At 46, Begich is the rookie in a small, tight-knit delegation of three politicians. And while he may be the new kid on the block, he and Alaska Rep. Don Young have history.
Begich's father, Nick, was a congressman in Alaska in the 1970s. He was campaigning for re-election in 1972 when his plane disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska. His body was never found, and Young took his seat in Washington, where he has remained since.
Mark Begich was 10 years old when his father disappeared.
"If you ask any of my family members, I was the least likely to be sitting right here," he says. "I was not the person to be here."
Begich never graduated from college — instead getting a business license at the age of 16. But business led to public service on the Anchorage Assembly and eventually as the mayor of Alaska's largest city. Now he has brought his family story full circle.
"It's emotional to some degree, and then just exciting because these halls I was in as a kid," he says, referring to the Capitol. "But to be back here in this format is pretty cool."
Begich's Plans For Washington
Begich's biggest challenge may be living down the ghosts of Alaska's past. Young and Stevens gained fame in Alaska and infamy elsewhere for decades of bringing billions of dollars in earmarks to the state. One request for federal funding that caused an uproar was for the "Bridge to Nowhere" — a road bridge that would have connected the town of Ketchikan to an island where roughly 50 people lived. The bridge ended up not being built.
Begich says that way of doing business has to change.
"Alaska got a bad reputation, which bled around the country, and people took a lot of criticism," he says.
Begich plans to steer his own course — and Democrats might not quite recognize him as one of their own. He is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and wants to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But Begich says he is in the perfect position to talk to people on both sides of the aisle.
"I think that harsh, arm-twisting, it's my-way-or-the highway are, I think, the ways of the past. I am a contrast to Ted [Stevens] in my personality," he says. "Will I fight and yell and scream about Alaska issues when it's necessary? You bet. But that's not 90 percent of my personality. My personality is about figuring out how to get people on board."
Begich will be sworn in on Jan. 6 — just days after Alaska celebrates its 50th anniversary as a state. He says it is good timing for a new generation of leadership.
Libby Casey reports for the Alaska Public Radio Network.
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