With the defeat of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Mark Begich has become Alaska's senior U.S. senator -- less than two years into his first term. In an interview Aug. 26, Begich talked about his ability to build relationships while also bucking the federal government.
Two days after the Aug 24 primary election Begich criticized tea party-backed Joe Miller's campaign against Murkowski as "harsh" and "negative," and expressed concern that Miller's anti-federal government stance would jeopardize Alaska's ability to secure federal funding.
At home during the August recess, Begich hosted a variety of high-ranking federal officials, including Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp, Indian Health Services Director Yvette Roubideaux and representatives from the Interior Department, Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Affairs.
The various health agencies were in Alaska working on a task force created by the health insurance reform legislation that President Barack Obama signed March 21. The task force is assigned to prepare a report due Sept. 23 on how to improve delivery of health care in Alaska.
"They traveled all across the state doing hearings, listening sessions," Begich said. "That will be a report to Congress that I can use, saying, 'here's what we need to do.' It gives us the ammunition to take it to the next level."
Begich said he was particularly pleased to host Babbitt and Papp, given Alaska's dependence on aviation and the Coast Guard, which has its largest station in Kodiak. Alaska was Papp's first official visit as head of the Coast Guard. Papp is replacing Thad Allen, who is leading the oil spill clean-up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.
"It's a good message that he was here first," Begich said. "He wants to reassure Alaskans that the Coast Guard is committed to Alaska. The president was kicking some cuts around, but we are going to put almost all those back in, 98 percent of them."
Bringing high-ranking officials to Alaska to see its needs firsthand is the best way to help them understand that when Begich talks about villages, he doesn't mean "some little town you can hop a Greyhound into."
"We're not here to pound them into the ground," he said, "but to make them aware of the things we're concerned about."
Begich also expressed concerns in an offshore policy forum held by the newly renamed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly known as Minerals Management Service).
Begich pressed the BOEM to expedite Shell's attempted exploration activities in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas that were on for this summer until being put on hold following the Gulf oil spill, as well as ConocoPhillips' stalled CD-5 project in the national petroleum reserve.
"We shouldn't be captured by what's going on in the Gulf," Begich said. "What we're doing is exploration, not full production, so if they have concerns, we can address that as we go forward. That's going to be my pitch to them."
On Miller's surprising showing in the primary vote, Begich criticized the Fairbanks attorney, whose efforts were boosted by the Tea Party Express of California and the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Begich said Miller's attacks on Murkowski's voting record were distortions.
"He will argue, and I've heard him say, 'Well, I'm just laying out the facts,'" Begich said. "Well, he took facts and twisted them around to meet his needs, which was to win the primary."
Begich said that while he and Murkowski may disagree on national issues such as health insurance reform, they were "almost 100 percent" in concert when it came to Alaska's interests.
Murkowski, who didn't directly address Miller's attacks until days before the election, may have had a wrong strategy, one that depressed voter turnout on her behalf.
"It could have," had that effect, Begich said. "My philosophy has been, in my re-election (for mayor of Anchorage), that we run like we were 20 points down. You have to run like you're always 20 points down. This is a very unique time in elections in this country. There's a shift occurring. Now because of the bad economy, it has put certain elements of that shift on steroids."
Miller's spokesman, Randy DeSoto, defended the campaign against Murkowski and Begich's assertion that it had "twisted" Murkowski's record, particularly on health insurance reform.
Murkowski voted against the final package March 21, but Miller's campaign criticized her for taking too long to get on board the drive for repeal led by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
"When DeMint and others were saying, 'Let's get on this bill saying we want to repeal this thing and let people know that we're against it,' she took four months to sign on," DeSoto said. "That was probably the one you could point to and say, 'she's on the record this way and he's trying to say something else.'"
The Republican candidate will go against the relatively unknown Scott McAdams, currently the Sitka mayor.
Begich said he believes McAdams will be underestimated. Begich also said he'll ask the Democratic National Committee to support McAdams' bid, noting the low cost of advertising in the state.
"You've got a $1 million race in Alaska or a $40 million race down south," Begich said. "The vote is the same. It's one (senate) vote. What do you pick? The math is simple in my book (Alaska.)"
"I think it's anybody's race. I know the nationals will say it's a Republican state. They said that about me, too. You have moderate independents who would vote for Lisa that can't vote for Joe Miller."
Miller's stance on cutting the federal government won't play well in Washington, D.C., Begich said.
"If you go in there with an attitude, 'I'm going to go in there and kick some butt,' if I'm an appropriator and I've got this Alaskan out there saying this, I say, 'Really? Good, you don't need this Denali Commission money then. It's not authorized anyway, so we're not doing that,'" he said. "That puts us at great risk."
The Miller campaign disagreed. "If we're continuing down the road of $1 trillion deficits per year, guess what, there won't be any discretionary money," DeSoto said. "You can re-elect someone to bring home the bacon, but there's not going to be much bacon to bring home."
Begich hasn't always follow the party line, as noted by the recent conflict with majority leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada over oil spill legislation.
"Sen. Reid had an energy bill with a lot of little pieces and I wasn't very positive about it, to say the least," Begich said. "It was a nice little trinket bill but it wasn't going to change the energy economy. I said I'm not interested and I'm not going to vote for it."
Being willing to make consistent stands has overcome opposition within his party, Begich said, and stepping across party lines at times is the only way to get things done for Alaska.
"To say that we can no longer work across party lines -- in Alaska that is not how the state was built," Begich said. "That's not how statehood happened, that's not how the pipeline happened, that's not how Alaska Native land claims happened. I can go through a shopping of list of things that did not happen through being one side of the equation.
"If we're now going down the path of, if you're not a 'D' or you're not an 'R', then this state and the country are heading for serious problems."
Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen.@alaskajournal.com.
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