When a Democrat last represented Alaska in Congress, Jimmy Carter was president, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was new, and Mark Begich was a teenager known for staging Friday Night Fever disco dances that packed hundreds of booty-shaking kids into a downtown Anchorage ballroom.
Now Mr. Begich, the Democratic mayor of Anchorage, is on his way to the US Senate, having toppled the icon known variously as “Uncle Ted” for the billions of federal “Stevens dollars” he secured for Alaska, “senator for life” for his political longevity, and “Alaskan of the century” for his outsized contributions to Alaska’s progression from a poverty-stricken outpost into a petrodollar-fueled modern state.
The changing of the guard, probably helped along by Sen. Ted Stevens’s conviction Oct. 27 on federal corruption charges, is prompting residents to wonder how the loss of a very senior senator – one who hasn’t been shy about using his appropriations clout to net goodies for his home state – will affect Alaska’s future.
Indeed, when the new Senate convenes in January, the only states whose senatorial duo will be more junior than Alaska’s will be Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia (and possibly Georgia and Minnesota, pending the outcomes of their Senate races). Given that seniority equals power in the Senate, Alaskans would be wise not to expect anything close to the $3.4 billion in pet projects that Senator Stevens delivered between 1995 and 2008.
Some here, though, say the days of bellying up to the federal trough are probably waning anyway, courtesy of the national economic crisis.
“Alaskans have got to be prepared now to not receive that largess from the federal government that we’re all kind of used to getting,” Gov. Sarah Palin, the former GOP vice presidential candidate, said here Nov. 19. “That’s reality.”
Senator-elect Begich and his supporters, however, suggest he will be able to achieve some things that Stevens could not. Chief among those is to reach the long-desired Alaska goal of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling.
“Senator Stevens couldn’t even get into the doors of the environmental community because there was no communication,” Begich said at a Nov. 19 press conference. “I’ve always gone into groups that may agree with me, may not agree with me, but I’m always going to sit with them. And that’s a huge difference that did not exist for many years on the issue of ANWR.” Having an Alaska Democrat in the caucus for the first time since Mike Gravel left the Senate in 1981 will help promote the pro-development message, he said.
Begich said, too, that he hopes to remake the state’s image as corrupt and greedy, and to start telling the “broader story of who we are,” he said. That means better explaining Alaska’s circumstances, such as the challenges of providing healthcare, and showing how the No Child Left Behind Act is unworkable in rural Alaska.
It seems clear that Begich will not be a cookie-cutter Democrat.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a different Democrat. I’m from Alaska,” he said at the news conference. That means support for gun rights and other positions embraced by most Alaskans but not by Democrats nationally.
The Anchorage mayor may be little known in most of America – the satirical political website wonkette.com referred to him as a “random warm-bodied Democrat” – but the Begich name is storied in Alaska. Begich’s father, Nick Begich, was the last Democrat to represent Alaska in the US House. (He died in a plane crash while campaigning for reelection in 1972.) At a young age, Mark gained a reputation as a savvy entrepreneur – his disco dances were one of several moneymaking ventures – and a political prodigy. He skipped college and went to work as a driver and personal aide to Tony Knowles, then Anchorage’s mayor and later the governor. He was elected to the Anchorage Assembly at 26 and served the maximum three terms. He upset Anchorage’s incumbent mayor George Wuerch in 2003 and was handily reelected three years later.
“He is a coalition-builder par excellence,” says former Assembly member Heather Flynn, a Democrat.
Foes, though, accuse Begich of being overzealous, sometimes running roughshod over rules and the Assembly’s power.
In the Senate, Begich will join another second-generation Alaska politician, Republican Lisa Murkowski. She occupies the seat that was held for 22 years by her father, Frank. Begich predicts the two will have a good working relationship, saying they have a “different style” that is more collaborative than the confrontational approach used by Stevens, who tended to demonize opponents as “outside environmental extremists.”