Arguably, Mark Begich is a Democrat in name only. Alaska's new U.S. senator joined a bipartisan group that whacked away at the economic stimulus, getting it down to $787 billion. He allied himself with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in a new push to allow oil drilling in the state's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And he joined several Republicans who wish to let gun owners who have permits carry concealed weapons across state lines.
The low-key, boyish Begich (pronounced BEG-ich) was mayor of Anchorage for almost six years before taking his Senate seat in January. He toppled the legendary Ted Stevens, who, when voters cast ballots in November, had just amassed seven felony convictions for lying about $250,000 in gifts.
The 85-year-old former senator—to many Alaskans, the beloved "Uncle Ted" who had delivered billions of dollars to the state—was by no means a goner, even with the brand-new rap sheet. Stevens had served longer than any GOP senator in history, and Begich eked out a win by only 3,953 votes, about 1 percent of the total.
He chose the high road during his challenge, leaving national Democrats to deliver a fusillade of attack ads. Stevens, Begich says now, "was out of touch. He did a good job, people said, but the country's changing, Alaska's changing, and they wanted a fresh, new voice down here."
Begich speaks from cramped, temporary space in the Hart Senate Office Building, where an old blue license plate—stamped "Alaska U.S.A. 1"—symbolizes both a tragedy and his trajectory. The plate belonged to his father, Nick Begich, a one-term House member who was declared dead in 1972 after his plane went missing over the Gulf of Alaska. He was campaigning for re-election with the House majority leader, Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana. Neither was ever found.
The catastrophe left Begich's mother a widow with six children. Begich, the fourth youngest, says he seemed the least likely one in his family to later pursue office. Imagine being a 10-year-old boy and losing a father to his job, he says, "because that's what it was. He was serving in his job." In adulthood, Begich threw himself into business and real estate pursuits. He steered clear of politics, but he felt the tug because, he says, "ingrained in our family is public service." At age 26, he started a nearly 10-year stint on Anchorage's city council. He ran twice for mayor and lost before capturing two terms, the first in 2003.
Ideologically, he says he's a "moderate-to-conservative Democrat" and admires lawmakers such as Sen. Jim Webb. Begich calls the Democrat from Virginia an independent thinker who works across the aisle "to get things done." Both are strong supporters of gun rights.
Begich is part of a new generation on Capitol Hill—26 senators have been elected or appointed since 2006—and in Alaska. He professes a "good relationship" with the Republican governor, Sarah Palin, even though she is mentioned as a potential challenger. Begich says they've worked cooperatively—she as governor, he as mayor of the state's largest city. They are close in age, and both have small children, he points out. (Begich and his wife have a 6-year-old son.) His wife owns small businesses, including a bookstore and gift shop in Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Begich is the only U.S. senator without a college degree. When he graduated from high school, Alaska was experiencing a "financial crash," which ruled out college. Instead, he helped his mother, who owned apartments, and two younger siblings. Over the years, he's taken classes, a la carte, at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, including ones on accounting and speech.
The all-day commute to Alaska (3,760 air miles, via Seattle) and its remoteness (four time zones from the Capitol) suggest the challenges inherent in representing the 50-year-old Last Frontier. The detail-oriented Begich uses "plane time" to work and study legislation. He plans to move his family to Washington.
His father was a conscientious, never-say-die lawmaker who was obsessed with using 3-by-5 index cards to keep track of the colleagues he needed to lobby and the constituents he'd met. "This was the day before the PalmPilot," his son says. The elder lawmaker's key achievement—passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, after many years of stalemate—is one that informs his son. Begich says he is apt to pick up the phone "for a conversation" with lawmakers of all stripes, believing, "When there's a 'no,' there could be a 'yes.' They're just not sure yet."
Environmentalists have criticized his bid to open ANWR to oil and gas exploration as "dead on arrival." But Begich says many of his colleagues have never set foot in Alaska to view its oil and natural gas operations. He also points out that he's the first Democrat in the state's three-member congressional delegation since 1981, which makes him think there's an "opportunity to do some education."
At the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, political scientist Jerry McBeath says relatively few policy differences emerged between Stevens and Begich as they did battle. He says that Begich is not only much younger but more tactful than the hot-tempered Stevens. But it remains to be seen, he says, how effective Begich will be in bringing home the bacon, particularly since he has never served in the Capitol or held statewide office.
Begich, after all, is not just a new lawmaker. He's a giant-slayer who took out a longtime congressional appropriator, one whose education into the ways of Washington began when Begich was 6 and just a schoolboy.