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Begich says Obama discontent, not Active ad, cost him Senate seat

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 22, 2014

Republican Dan Sullivan will be Alaska's newest U.S. senator, but outgoing Sen. Mark Begich said he'll work in Washington until the last minute to push through legislation that will benefit Alaska.

The Senate plans to adjourn Dec. 11. In his last days, Begich hopes to pass a variety of bills he sponsored or supports, including ones that would help fishermen, subsistence hunters and tribal communities.

Alaska Dispatch News caught up with Begich on Thursday for an interview. He describes why he believes he lost after one term, discusses the infamous Jerry Active ad and the loss of a seat on the important Senate Appropriations committee, and expands on his hopes and fears for Alaska with a Republican majority sweeping into the Senate in January.

You had some important accomplishments. Why do you think Dan Sullivan won?

I think there's no question that they nationalized the campaign. They made it not about my record. Never did they really talk, other than Obamacare, about the work I did, bringing F-16s or fighting for F-35s or bringing oil and gas development to the Arctic or improving veterans' care around the state. They never disagreed with that, or even questioned it. They decided that their strategy, like they did in every Senate race across the country, was to make it about President Obama, since he's not very favored in Alaska, and to make my campaign the proxy for that. I mean, that's clear. Every time you heard Dan talk, he talked about the president, never about what he was going to do, but about why the president is bad, and therefore Mark Begich is bad. But he never questioned all the work we did ... for Alaskans on a regular basis, because that's what we do.

Should President Obama have done something different?

Obviously, better positive ratings (laughs). But I think there's a lot. When you look at the national economy, where it was six years ago, it's come from the edge of collapse to being much stronger today and growing in the right direction. He could have talked a lot about that because people were not seeing that. But really, Alaska is one state that has seen it. That's why our dividends have doubled, because the economy was better. There's no better single identifier of an economy improved in Alaska than everyone's Permanent Fund check doubled. That's because the stock market went up, but no one translated that into the work we did in stabilizing the national economy. I think the president was void in explaining that to the American people.

What about the Jerry Active ad? How much of a factor was that?

I don't think much at all, and here's why. (Sullivan) had to take down his (rebuttal) ad also. What people honed in on -- there were several exit polls done -- the public viewed us as both equally running a certain percentage of our ads as negative. There was no differential between us on that question. I ran different ads on F-16s, oil and gas and education, on through the list. But what happened was third-party groups on both sides, not just his side but our side, all they were running was negative ads, and I think people were overwhelmed by that.

But no, I don't think that had the impact people think it had or would like to think it had. The issue in this campaign is we were the reddest state in the country. We lost by the smallest percent in the country. The president lost this state by 14 points. We lost it by a little over two points. (Sen.) Mark Udall (D-Colorado) lost his race in a state that the president won by almost six percentage points. He lost it by about two points. What that tells me is, very clearly, when you look at each state, that ad had really no impact. What happened was that people saw senators who were serving in the majority as a proxy for the president.

The next state as red as Alaska was Arkansas. (Democratic Sen.) Mark Pryor lost by 18 points. That should be a comparable. But (our campaign) ran a great ground game, third highest turnout in the country in votes. And people knew my record, and the record was solid, people appreciated it. And that's why I won Anchorage. Even after all those negative ads on my mayor's record they ran, I won 10 of the 16 districts, and I included Eagle River in that calculus. Even when they attacked me on those ads and we countered back, people knew my record of improving the city, making it a better place, improving the economy. We got caught in the national trend flowing through the political airwaves in the last 10 days, no question in my mind.

You lost by a pretty narrow margin. What if Murkowski had not supported your opponent? Do you think that was a factor?

You know, she never questioned the 80 percent issue -- that I voted with her 80 percent of the time -- and I think that (percent) is increasing as we sit here today on more votes we're doing.

Could that have had an impact? Sure, it probably could have had some impact. Would it have made the difference? I don't know. This flow that was coming across the country was pretty heavy. What's more interesting about it is now -- and no disrespect to the senator who won -- he's number 100 out of 100. And Alaska lost a vote on the appropriations committee. We lost the chairmanship of the fisheries and Coast Guard committee, and there's no question I would have been a chair of a subcommittee in appropriations or a ranking member, depending, obviously, who was in control of the majority. Alaska lost that. And that's going to be hard to get back. It's a time capsule issue. It doesn't happen just because you're here the first day.

Alaska is such a small, small delegation; seniority and clout is the name of the game. Here's the deal: When you're on the appropriations committee as a Democrat and a Republican from the same state, you get to keep those. But when you get two Republicans or two Democrats, you don't get two votes (on appropriations). Alaska lost out on that. We also lost out because there's no question, it doesn't matter who is in the majority or the minority, Lisa and I would have been a ranking member or a chair of a committee. Each of us. Because of the way retirements were occurring on appropriations, there's no question that I would have been a chair of a subcommittee right now or a ranking member because they have the majority, but either way we'd have control of two committees out of 12 on the appropriations committee and two votes. That's an amazing power.

And now we have no one chairing the fisheries committee in the middle of dealing with the Magnuson-Stevens Act. We have put a lot at risk.

It's an amazing thing we had. We never have had, in the history of Alaska, two people on the Appropriations committee. It's very rare in this country to have that.

Are you going to run for senate in 2016, maybe mayor in 2015?

Right now I'm going to spend my time through the holiday season just looking at getting things back together, spending time with the family. I've been hard on the campaign trail, a lot of time out and about. So I'm going to spend time with my wife and son and family and friends over the holiday season. I'm not going to rush into anything. I love public service; I think it's very important. And I think it's important, in a state like Alaska that has been great to me and a state that I love, that I continue to give back in public service in some way, maybe elected or otherwise. I'm not going to limit myself at this point. I'll just wait and see.

You’ve served in office a long time.

I've served in public office now 22 years. I've been (in) the private sector 35 years simultaneous to that.

So it seems like you’ll go back to serving in office at some point.

Yeah, but I want to wait and see. Like I said, there's no question in my mind -- if this was not an Obama riptide, there's no question I would have won reelection. So we'll just see how things happen. There's a lot of calls I'm getting from folks asking me to do certain things for public office, so we'll just wait and see.

What are you afraid of with Republicans controlling both houses and maybe the president’s office in two years? Or maybe it’s a good thing for the state?

Well, we had six years of that between 2001 and 2006, and the only thing we got is Louisiana got revenue sharing. The NPRA didn't open up, the Arctic didn't open up, ANWR didn't open up. So we had that before, (and) we didn't get a lot. The only thing we got was two unpaid-for wars, $11 trillion in national debt, and taxes that went up. What I worry most about is there won't be a good debate, a balance of the ideas that are critical for this country and Alaska. We need to continue to move forward on education reform, but I don't think that will be on the top of anyone's agenda. That's too bad because I think education is the greatest thing we can do to improve the economy.

In Alaska's case, we won't have much voice with the many different agencies that are currently controlled by a Democratic president, which is why we have Arctic oil and gas moving forward -- because I was able to hammer and push that forward. You've already seen in the papers in the last few days the military reexamining some of its efforts in Alaska, which is a problem, and I worry we may lose some of our ability to stop things from hurting Alaska, but also moving forward and advancing some important issues. Either in or out of politics, I'll continue to work on efforts we had to expand veterans' care. That's an important thing benefiting thousands of veterans across the state. I'll work on career education issues; I think that's an important thing.

But it's hard to say. What I heard on the campaign trail both here in Alaska and nationally was the Republicans want to get to a balanced budget, which I'm supportive of, but what does that mean? How will they make that happen? I think there will be fundamental differences in regards to where we move the country. There won't be a national minimum wage increase, that's for sure, because they don't support that. I think we're going to see reductions in education funding because I've battled with that already on appropriations. But I'm hopeful they'll work across party lines, something I did during my time in the Senate, sponsoring more bills with Republicans than most senators in Congress.

What do you want to accomplish before you leave?

We're working on closing out the comprehensive Coast Guard reauthorization bill that has many important things for Alaska in there. We're working with the House now and our bill so we're trying to craft a compromise bill which we're getting closer and closer on. That's important to me as chair of the committee. Second, we want to get our duck stamp issue resolved, to ensure subsistence users don't have to have a duck stamp to go subsistence harvesting. Third, the vessel discharge issue, we're working that right now. I feel very confident we'll get at least a one-year extension, maybe a permanent on fishing vessels less than 79 feet. This gets the EPA off their backs on a regulation that doesn't make any sense. We have appropriations bills with Alaska issues. The 8(a) corporation issue, to give them more flexibility so they can continue to do work for the Department of Defense. There's repealing section 910 (of the Violence Against Women Act that excluded more than 200 Alaska tribal communities from a key public-safety benefit). We're working out details and may have a resolution even tonight. So there's a laundry list of things we're not stopping on, all the way to the end.

We may incorporate these in a larger bill just to get them done, which I'm sure at some point some will criticize me for, saying "you never passed a bill." Oh, wait -- they did that in the campaign (laughs). But that's what I do, I put these in other bills that I know will pass. I can give you a shopping list of those bills. There's dozens of bills I wrapped into other bills to get passed because when I see a vehicle moving that is a must-pass bill, that's what I do. That's the strategy around here. I'll give you one example of that from the early days when I first got here: I did that when I made sure the Territorial Guard got their retirement checks, because the Department of Defense cut them and got rid of them. I said no, I have a separate bill for that. But instead what I did was I got John McCain to agree with me, and I put it into the national defense authorization bill, and I got it resolved. The bill became an amendment to the bigger bill, and when that bill passed, my issue got resolved because they had to pass the national defense bill. And that's how I did a lot of my work.

What are you most proud of -- one or two things?

Expanding veteran care access across the state is something I'm very proud of. People have talked about this, but we got it done. Now, it doesn't matter where a veteran lives in Alaska, Native or non-Native, you can show up at one of the tribal clinics or hospitals and get care that the VA will then reimburse that clinic for, so you don't have to fly large distances to get that care. That's an incredible statement of something people told me could not be done, and we got it done. Now other people around the country are looking to it as an example of what they could do in their own state. I did that one administratively; I worked with (former VA Secretary) Gen. Shinsheki, I brought him to a rural community. I got (former Health and Human Services) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the phone. I remember them sitting in my offices telling me "it can't be done." Now it's a model.

Also, for decades people talked about opening the Arctic for oil and gas, or the National Petroleum Reserve, which hadn't been open for any development since 1923 when it was first established. We got it done. Now the Arctic, the Beaufort and Chukchi seas are open for exploration, which will lead to millions barrels of oil per year and per day and jobs for Alaskans into the future. The National Petroleum Reserve will start actually producing oil next year, literally in the next 12 months, the first phase of it. I'm very proud we were able to push the administration to see our side of the equation on this.

There are many other things, but those are two mega-things that will have huge impact to Alaska over the generations.

Anything you see as a lost opportunity?

I wish we could have gotten the Magnuson-Stevens Act completed, but when (Sen. Ted) Stevens had that reauthorization, it took him five years to get it done. We were just in our first year. It has a lot of important pieces to Alaska we want to protect. I'm worried there's no Alaskan that will be head of that committee to manage that. I literally jumped over two senators to become chair of that committee to protect Alaskans' interests, and we're not going to have that.

What’s on the line?

A lot of people are jealous of what we've got, from the CDQ developments to the annual assessments we get for our stocks of fish. Other states don't have that. My worry is some might come in with limited dollars available today and say "let's take a little bit of Alaska's and shift it." At the same time, we get caught up in the East Coast anti-CDQ attitude because they have problems with it on the East Coast. They're not our problems, but they may loop us in somehow, so that worries me.

Sullivan is a likable guy, a quick learner. Where will he have promise or opportunities?

He can probably answer that better, because when we talked during the campaign, it wasn't about what issues he was going to work on except government overregulation and so forth, so I don't know what those positions will be. Being a likable guy is important, but you've got to get things done, and this place is about clout, seniority, it's about being on the right committees and building those relationships over the long haul that can get you the results you need for Alaska. The challenge for anyone, doesn't matter if it's him or anyone, is working with the other side and finding that compromise. I think the challenge he will have because he beat on the administration so much is having access to the administration to get some of the regulatory issues resolved for Alaska. That's something we were able to do all the time.

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