Sen. Mark Begich (D)
Elected: 2008, term expires 2014, 1st term.
Born: March 30, 1962, Anchorage .
Education: Steller H.S. (Anchorage), 1980..
Family: Married (Deborah Bonito); 1 child.
Elected office: Anchorage Assembly, 1988-98; Anchorage mayor, 2003-08.
Mark Begich, Alaska’s junior senator, was born five years after his parents moved to the Alaska Territory in 1957 to teach school. His father, Nick Begich, was a major figure in the state’s political history. Nick Begich was elected to the Alaska Senate, and in 1970, was elected Alaska’s at-large representative to Congress. He defeated Republican Frank Murkowski, who would later become a U.S. senator and governor. In October 1972, Nick Begich was killed along with U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana as they were flying to a campaign fundraiser. Their plane disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska. Mark Begich was only 10 at the time.
|Mark Begich (D)||151,767||(48%)||($4,453,292)|
|Ted Stevens (R)||147,814||(47%)||($4,050,791)|
|Bob Bird (Ind)||13,197||(4%)||($33,019)|
|Mark Begich (D)||63,747||(84%)|
|Ray Metcalfe (D)||5,480||(7%)|
|Bob Bird (D)||4,216||(6%)|
Mark was something of a political prodigy, appointed by the mayor to the youth commission at age 17, and then landing a spot in the city health department. (Showing his entrepreneurial side at age 16, Begich opened a teen nightclub called the Motherlode.) When he was 20, he was hired as the personal assistant to Mayor Tony Knowles, who would later become governor. A few years later, Begich followed in his father’s footsteps by winning election to the Anchorage Assembly, becoming the city governing board’s youngest member ever. He served for 10 years and was chosen chairman.
Begich’s quest for higher office took some time. He ran for mayor in 1994, but lost with 42% of the vote. He ran again in 2000 and lost with 48%. In his third attempt in 2003, Begich beat incumbent George Wuerch. During his five years leading Alaska’s largest city, he was able to raise the city’s bond ratings while lowering property taxes for most taxpayers. He was easily re-elected to a second term in 2006. As mayor, Begich claimed credit for getting voters to twice pass bond issues, for holding down property taxes, for hiring 65 additional police officers, and for setting up a multi-agency anti-gang initiative.
In late 2007, national Democratic leaders began courting Begich for a possible challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, a six-term incumbent who was vulnerable as a result of a federal corruption investigation into his relationship with Bill Allen, the former chief executive officer of the VECO oil services company. Stevens was later indicted for failing to report on his Senate financial disclosure forms thousands of dollars in renovation work that VECO employees did on his home. Stevens had represented the state for four decades and had won re-election by wide margins; in one race he carried every precinct in the state. He could claim credit for landmark legislation that allowed the building of the Alaska oil pipeline and that established Alaska Native corporations. As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, he funneled vast sums of money into Alaska, and stayed in touch with virtually every civic and political group in the state.
Encouraged by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer of New York, Begich set up an exploratory committee in February 2008. Having never held office outside Anchorage, Begich made visits to Fairbanks, Bethel, Ketchikan, and Sitka. He announced he was running in April. “We’ve seen here in Alaska the ultimate result of unfettered greed—grainy videotapes of state legislators in hotel rooms laughing at the citizens of our great state,” he said. “And we’ve seen in Washington the ultimate result of special influence and legislative indifference.” He issued an “Alaska Ethics Pledge” in which he vowed to make public both his and his wife’s finances “to the dollar” and to disclose the beneficiary of his congressional earmarks, the special spending provisions tucked into appropriations bills by individual lawmakers. He called for a citizens ethics board in the Senate and for Internet disclosure of all meetings of senators with lobbyists. He was careful not to attack the revered Stevens personally, and he paid tribute to Stevens’s long service to the state. But the message was not lost on voters.
Begich also emphasized Alaska issues. He called for increased spending for rural health care, an important matter for many Alaskan natives, and for loans for energy-efficient community buildings. He advocated repeal of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, with its mandates tying federal funds to students’ test performance. He said that the national Democratic Party was “wrong” on gun rights, which he supports, and wrong in opposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. With help from Schumer and the DSSC, he proved to be a solid fundraiser, nearly matching Stevens. Begich spent $4.4 million to Stevens’s $5.7 million. National Democrats ran ads showing federal agents raiding Stevens’s house. National Republicans ran ads accusing Begich of rezoning downtown Anchorage land to aid two developers, and highlighting $16,000 in tax liens on his businesses in the 1990s.
On July 29, 2008, Stevens was indicted in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., for failing to report on his Senate forms the value of gifts from Allen and the VECO company in the renovation of his house. The news was dynamite in Alaska. Stevens protested his innocence and his determination to run for re-election. Polls showed the incumbent running a bit behind or no better than even with Begich. In the August Democratic primary, Begich got 84% of the vote over four opponents. In the GOP primary, Stevens beat David Cuddy, a businessman who had run against him 12 years before, 64%-27%. Stevens got slightly more votes than Begich, but could hardly count on those who had voted against him in the primary. Some national Republicans expressed hope that Stevens would resign and let Alaska Republicans pick a new, untarnished candidate. But Stevens refused to quit even though he spent much of October on trial in a D.C. courtroom.
On October 27, 2008, Stevens was convicted on all seven counts. “I am innocent,” he declared. “This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial. I ask that Alaskans and my Senate colleagues stand with me as I pursue my rights. I remain a candidate for the United States Senate.” But it was not clear whether Stevens could have kept his seat even if he was re-elected. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called on Stevens to resign. Stevens would certainly have had to face a Senate Ethics Committee investigation and perhaps expulsion. Some Republicans urged a vote for Stevens on the grounds that, if he was re-elected and then left the Senate, GOP Gov. Sarah Palin could appoint another Republican to fill the vacancy. Stevens may have helped his re-election chances with a two-minute television ad he ran just before the election recounting what he had done for Alaska for 40 years. Last-minute polls showed a dead heat.
The Election Night returns showed Stevens ahead 48%-46% but the race was too close to call. But Barack Obama’s superb organization in Alaska had ensured that many Democrats cast early votes or absentee votes, and as they were counted, Begich kept gaining ground. By November 12, Begich was ahead, and on November 18, he led by more than the number of votes left to count. He became the first Democratic senator elected in Alaska since Mike Gravel was re-elected in 1974.
In December 2008, the Senate held a session for colleagues to praise Stevens on his service and accomplishments; little was said about the result of the trial. In the new Congress, Begich sought a seat on the Appropriations Committee on which Stevens had served for so long. Freshman rarely get appointed to the committee, and Democratic leaders instead gave him seats on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Armed Services Committee.