Saturday, December 06, 2008

Alaska's Newest Senator

Recently, the NY Times profiled Alaska’s newest Senator, Democrat Mark Begich, who defeated Ted Stevens in November. Stevens, the “Alaskan of the Century,” had retained that Senate seat since Begich was 6 years old and the state of Alaska was 9 years old. Needless to say, change was long overdue.

Mr. Begich has a history of courting skeptics, becoming mayor in 2003 (he avoided a runoff by just 18 votes) after losing twice before. He is certainly a different kind of politician from Mr. Stevens, 85, a World War II veteran and Harvard-trained lawyer who, like many other elected officials here, moved to Alaska as an adult. Mr. Begich, who never went to college, was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska’s only big city. His wife is the former head of the state Democratic Party, and his father, Nick, was a member of Congress. As a young man, Mr. Begich managed apartment buildings in Anchorage, and at 26 was elected to the nonpartisan Anchorage Assembly, or city council.

…Mr. Begich won rural Alaska overwhelmingly in November, even though Mr. Stevens had delivered improvements like cleaner drinking water and airplane landing strips to remote villages. Yet the Begich name is also well known in rural areas.

Mr. Begich’s father was the last Alaska Democrat elected to the House. Nick Begich won his second term in November 1972, weeks after he was killed when a small plane he was traveling in disappeared during a campaign trip. Don Young, a Republican, won the seat in a special election the next year and still holds it. The state’s last Democratic senator, Mike Gravel, was defeated in a re-election bid in 1980.

Mr. Begich is married to Deborah Bonito, the former Democratic Party chairwoman and a small-business owner, and they have a 6-year-old son. He has not lived outside Alaska since he was a boy and his father was in Congress. Mr. Begich was 10 when his father died. He says he still makes a habit of keeping tools in his truck after years of helping his mother, Pegge, manage apartment buildings the family owned. He has also worked in the vending and restaurant industries and in real estate.

Crisp in his business suits and smooth in his delivery, the mayor has more urban polish than many other elected officials in Alaska. He is a regular presence at events like mortgage bankers luncheons and chamber of commerce gatherings; he also likes to slip in stories about standing in the supermarket aisle, commiserating about the high prices with residents who may not know he is mayor. He says he seeks out the discounted day-old bread. Mr. Begich portrays himself as a bold and contrarian Democrat, but he becomes more elliptical when discussing certain social issues.

..Mr. Begich said his top priority in Washington would be energy policy. He said drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be done safely because of improved technology and should be part of a broad energy policy that also used wind, geothermal, hydropower and other renewable fuels. Saying energy policy should be shaped in the context of global warming, he pointed to street lamps on Benson Boulevard in midtown Anchorage and noted that the city was converting them to high-efficiency LED bulbs.

“The Republicans in our delegation didn’t even wake up to climate change until I started talking about it,” he said. While Mr. Stevens once threatened to campaign against lawmakers who did not support his proposals, Mr. Begich said he planned to win people over, not roll over them.

Asked whether he would be loud and aggressive in Congress, he said: “I’m going to be loud and respectful. There’s a difference. I’m loud when I need to be, but Ted was ‘you owe me.’ No one owes you anything in life. You’ve got to earn it.”

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