Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, fielded questions about the Pebble Mine, oil drilling in Alaska, his finances and stress level during a visit to Kenai Monday morning.
More than 60 seventh- and eighth-grade students had about half an hour to question the senator after he spoke briefly about his job, why it was important and upcoming issues in the government.
During his introductory speech, Begich said he spent a lot of time on airplanes.
“I try to come back here to Alaska about a third of my time. I fly back off and on about two to three times a month to get back here,” he said. “It’s a long flight, it’s not something where you’re just going to Anchorage or Homer. I usually fly out Friday morning and then I fly back from Alaska on Sunday evening. You visualize that, that’s a lot of flying. So, I spend a lot of my time on an airplane as you can imagine.”
He said he tries to use the time effectively, but sometimes uses in-flight amenities to catch up on entertainment.
“I take advantage of Alaska Airlines video players. I never get to see any movies because I have a 10-year-old and if it’s not on Disney or G-rated, I don’t get to see it,” Begich said as several teachers and other adults in the room laughed and nodded.
Begich told the students that he was about their age when he opened his first business.
“I went to school in Anchorage but as I got to the age of 16 I opened up in Anchorage the first non-alcoholic teengage nightclub in the city because I was fed up with doing nothing on the weekends or getting in trouble,” he said. “So I decided to do something that was much more fun and I put together a business plan and got adults and some teenagers together. It was great business experience but also, my weekends were covered.”
He ended his opening speech by saying that the issues government was facing were wide-ranging.
“We have a huge budget issue we’re going to face in the next 2 months after the elections. Just to put it in perspective and what the money is like, every year we’re running a trillion dollar deficit. We’re in the hole a trillion dollars ... it’s going to impact everything. Everything you can imagine,” he said. “The people who will be most affected by that are you for the simple reason that you will live longer than us.”
The first question wasn’t easy; a student asked Begich who he would vote for in November presidential election.
After the laughter died down Begich said he was asked the same question at the State Chamber of Commerce meeting.
“You’re not going to get the answer that you want, to be very frank,” he said. “I’ve never endorsed a political candidate in all my life. I don’t.”
The Senator said he liked and disliked things about both candidates when he considered how they stood on issues related to Alaska.
“I think in the case of the current president we’ve had to work double time to get him to see the value of oil and gas development in the state. It has been a struggle,” Begich said. “I wish he would work fast on that issue because I have spent three years arguing over this. But I do believe his investments that he’s making in education in the area of middle class are good investments. What he did with the automobile industry when the other side had no interest in helping the automobile industry, turned it around, paid off the debts and now it’s growing.”
However, he said he didn’t like the way Gov. Mitt Romney spoke about tax cuts.
“We can’t afford it. When you make the argument that if we cut or get rid of the tax cuts that the very wealthy have been receiving that will destroy the economy, well let me put a question to you. It’s a rhetorical question. The last 12 years, they’ve had those tax cuts, the economy had the greatest recession we’ve ever seen in the history of this country. So I’m wondering how that all worked out, they got the money and the rest of the economy suffered for it,” Begich said. “So I don’t believe in that argument, that’s a false argument.”
Regardless of how he votes, Begich said Alaskans tended to vote for who they want, not along party lines.
“My view is, whoever gets elected they better have Alaska on their mind and if they don’t they’ll hear from me,” he said.
Gavin Petterson, 13, asked the Senator’s opinion on the amount of oil drilling happening in the state.
“I’m supportive of oil and gas exploration in the state,” Begich said.
He said the Cook Inlet region did not have as much oil and gas exploration when he was campaigning four years ago.
“Today because we have a lot of independent oil companies exploring and doing that sort of work, it’s much more robust than it used to be,” he said. “Just to give you an idea on oil and gas in the Arctic, Shell Oil Company — one of three that will be exploring over the next couple of years — has over 90 support vessels and over 1,800 people up there. We’re hard on them, on the environmental end we want to make sure they’re done right and Alaska knows how to do this right.”
Petterson sat down, his brow furrowed slightly.
“I respected his answer, I understood where he was coming from,” Petterson said.
However, the middle-schooler had a different perspective.
“A lot of people are drilling in a lot of places right now,” Petterson said. “Like right on Bridge Access (Road.) I mean, it helps support our permanent fund, but its one of those things that if you think 50 years in the future, we’ll probably be close to running out.”
Representatives from Begich’s office said he would also several sites where recent flooding caused a disaster declaration on the Kenai Peninsula.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.