Senator Mark Begich is criss-crossing the state during Congress’s 4th of July recess. He arrived in Sitka last week (Thurs 6-26-14) having just escaped the swampy weather in Washington D.C.
Begich: It was 80 degrees and 85% humidity, so I was like, get me out of here!
But a big part of his job right now is getting Alaskans to send him back into the heated politics of the nation’s capital.
Begich is running for a second term in November, and the race has taken on national dimensions. Republicans needs to pick up six seats to take control of the US Senate, and Begich is one of their top targets.
But Begich doesn’t sound like a man afraid of his Republican opponents. One of the first issues he touched on was ocean acidification, raising the hot-button topic of climate change.
“I’m not afraid to talk about climate change,” he said. “I live in a state that I see it, whenever I travel. Doesn’t matter if it’s western Alaska or down to Southeast where acidification is affecting our fisheries, or you go up the interior and the permafrost is melting, impacting infrastructure: I see it. Even though we have a strong, important part of our economy, oil and gas, it doesn’t mean that we only are one side of the equation.”
Begich argues that Alaska is well-placed to meet goals set under new regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those regulations, if adopted, will require states to significantly cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Many election-watchers expect them to dent the chances of Democrats, like Begich, from energy-producing states.
But he says that renewable energy projects around the state mean that Alaska is already on the right track.
“The national debate on this is, ‘If you’re for oil and gas you’re over here. If you’re for renewable energy you’re over here,'” he said. “In reality, in Alaska, we’ve figured out how to meld these things the right way, and I think that’s the goal that we have to have on a national level.”
That said, Begich isn’t willing to contemplate a slow-down in Alaska’s major industry.
“We will always be producing,” he said. “As long as we can find oil and gas we’ll produce it.”
Begich also addressed another hot-button issue: veterans’ care. He sits on the Veterans’ Affairs committee, and outside groups have attacked him over recent revelations of long wait times at V.A. hospitals.
Begich said he’s been aware of these issues ever since he was elected — and he says that one solution to the problem is a program being piloted in Alaska. A new policy allows veterans to receive care locally, from the state’s network of tribal health care organizations, instead of requiring them to travel to V.A. hospitals in Seattle or Anchorage.
“Access is the issue,” He said. “You have to think out of the box. We forced it here, and we probably could because Alaska, we can kind of do things a little differently, because they forget sometimes we exist. We made our case, we changed the system here, we get better access. I think this is something we need to do around the country.”
Begich says that the biggest issue facing veterans’ care is the sheer number of new veterans who have entered the system in the last decade, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And he says the US should not re-open its war in Iraq, despite the increasing chaos there.
“I’m not for it, I’ve made it very clear, no ground troops. I think even these advisors are risky, because it leads to other things,” he said. “And we’ve got a lot of work here to take care of, a lot of issues back home.”
Begich touted his ability to work across party lines with Alaska’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, and says Alaskans benefit from his seniority and seats on crucial committees.
Being on the appropriations committee, both Senator Murkowski and I, this is like the holy grail,” he said. “That is a powerful role that we have.”
The appropriations committee controls most funding bills.
As for his opponent, he won’t know who he’s running against until after the Republican primary on August 19. Recent polls have shown former attorney general Dan Sullivan ahead of Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell and Tea Party favorite Joe Miller. But Begich says he’s making no assumptions.
“Alaska politics are very different,” he said. “I know outside pundits like to predict what’s gonna happen here and I wish them all the best, but they never get it right. And at the end of the day, voters will make these decisions and the primary is two months away.”
“That’s a long time in politics.”