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Mark Begich's race to the top

Patti Epler

In just over two years, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has climbed to one of the top leadership spots in the majority Democratic caucus, a perch that gives Alaska a higher profile and presumably a better shot at getting what it wants. 

It's an unusually fast ascent, by all accounts. Begich now occupies the No. 5 leadership post -- out of 51 Democrats -- and sits on four standing committees. He was recently named chairman of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, a key post for Alaska natural resource interests. And late last year he was tapped to chair a Senate Democratic political committee, the Steering and Outreach Committee, which puts him in the room with an elite group of Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, in deciding Senate strategy and positions on issues.

"I would never have expected to be where we are in two years, but the opportunities for Alaska are unbelievable," Begich said in a recent interview. "It changes the ability to get things done."

Begich a U.S. Senate 'workhorse'

How he got there would seem to be a combination of hard work, political savvy and being in the right place at the right time, according to Begich and others.

Begich credits his rapid rise to basically just being willing to get in the middle of things, working behind the scenes with senators from all different factions and not being afraid to push his way into meetings where he felt Alaska's interests needed to be represented.

That caught the attention of leadership, he says, and he was asked to take more of a formal leadership role.

In a story late last year, Roll Call identified Begich as one of the "key drivers behind an uprising of the Democratic classes of 2006 and 2008, the result of which has been dramatic changes in the way the caucus and the leadership operates."

The article says junior Democrats were upset over the way health care reform was viewed and a lack of coordination in getting out the Democrats' message. Reid restructured leadership to bring in Sens. Charles Schumer, Debbie Stabenow, Patty Murray and Begich.

Begich says he was immediately viewed as now being in the ideological pocket of Reid but that has never been the deal.

"I didn't ask for this position," he said. "I made it very clear to leadership that I'm not going to be 100 percent in their direction. I will disagree with them when I disagree; when I agree I agree."

As a recent example of that maverick streak Begich points to the Senate's vote to extend the Patriot Act by three months. Begich opposed it because the Alaska Legislature and other constituencies in Alaska were opposed. He was one of 12 senators -- including nine Democrats -- who voted against the measure.

Begich is unapologetic. "I joke that if they kick me out of leadership it gives me 10 points plus in Alaska," he says.

It's a way to make another of his points: being an elected Democrat in a largely Republican state means he often brings a more moderate perspective to issues, especially when it comes to pro-development concerns like oil and gas development.

Begich believes that being in leadership gives him more opportunity to sway opinion among his more liberal colleagues on offshore development and other resource issues. Although, he concedes, even in leadership he doubts he'll have much luck convincing Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.

He hopes to do better on helping frame a national energy policy because, as he notes, he's the only one in leadership from an energy state.

Begich says he has been taking advantage of his post as chair of the Steering and Outreach Committee to make sure Alaskans and their perspectives are heard. The steering part means he is in on top-level discussions that basically direct the business of the Senate from the majority perspective. The outreach part is where Begich says he gets to bring in people from across the country -- and always an Alaskan -- to meet with senators about issues. Recently, he said, he asked longtime Anchorage civic activist Eleanor Andrews to join them for a briefing on the budget deficit, Social Security and other issues.

"For Alaska, it gives me a chance in those (leadership) meetings to really pitch the Alaska position," he said.

Begich points to the recent proposal by Arizona Sen. John McCain to cut funding for Essential Air Service, a federal program that subsidizes air service to rural American communities. Begich says leadership asked him to make a case for tabling the budget amendment because of his interest in it on behalf of Alaska. And Alaska saved the program for the rest of the country, he contends, because he was able to demonstrate its value here.

Senate historian Don Ritchie says it's a bit unusual for Begich to have risen so far so fast. It used to be new senators "were supposed to be quiet and wait their turn" before being asked to assume leadership roles.

But congressional leadership in recent decades has made an effort to give new members more responsibility and that's allowed a few to combine other characteristics to obtain a more high-profile status.

"It's still noticeable when a freshman gets that kind of attention," Ritchie says, likening him to Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota who quickly ascended through leadership to become majority leader. "There are certain people they have promoted who have caught the attention."

In Begich's case, Ritchie says, he is known as a hard worker and someone who is willing to work all the angles.

"In the Senate the old saying is there are showhorses and there are workhorses," Ritchie says. "Begich is a workhorse. He's certainly been getting the committee assignments" that prove it.

Begich styled in image of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens

Jennifer Duffy, a senior political analyst with Cook Political Report who watches the Senate, says Begich's induction into leadership also was helped by the change in the Senate that occurred with the 2010 elections. The number of Democrats in the Senate dropped from 59 to 51 and four longtime Democratic senators have announced their retirements.

"That helps somebody like Begich move up the ladder fast," she says. "But I also think he's got a unique policy perspective on a lot of things. He's been outspoken on things like energy and natural resources."

Duffy says Begich also has the reputation of putting Alaska above the party so he is not viewed as a rubber stamp for the Obama administration. She considers him to be "a thorn in the side of the Democratic leadership at times."

And, she says, he is known to be friends with well-known moderates in the Senate.

Ritchie says there's no doubt that Begich's leadership position helps Alaska in the long run because he is in a position to help other senators who help him. "The Senate is a body of equals but some are more equal than others," Ritchie notes, adding that Sen. Ted Stevens was in many ways similar to Begich, holding a number of chairmanships and positions before he became chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

Begich, of course, took over Stevens' Senate seat when he defeated the veteran senator in the 2008 election.

But Duffy says Alaskans shouldn’t be looking to Begich to fill Stevens' shoes; that role is already taken by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican like Stevens and one of his closest political allies.

"I know it is Stevens' seat but Murkowski has kind of picked up the mantle of his heir," Duffy says. "She is seen as the one filling his shoes."

For her part, Murkowski says she is happy to have Begich as a colleague and thinks they work well together. She says his new chairmanship of the oceans and fisheries subcommittee is a "big plus" for Alaska and notes that between the committees the two of them are on "there are not many holes for representation for Alaska."

Murkowski also applauds Begich for attempting to bring Alaskans in to the process. "He is using his management style to raise a level of consciousness and awareness about Alaska and that is good."

Duffy points out that being in leadership will protect Begich's seats on committees if and when Democrats lose members in the Senate, which may happen in 2012.

For Begich himself, politically speaking, Duffy says, it's a bit too early to tell how Begich's leadership position will help him -- or hurt him -- in the 2014 elections. A number of well-known Republican politicians have already indicated they are considering running against him when his seat is up in 2014.

Duffy notes that FEC reports show he's already got a 2014 campaign committee that is reporting about $250,000 in the bank which she says is "not bad" for this point in the cycle. But he'll need to pick up the fundraising pace soon, she says.

"That's not what we call an intimidating amount of money. It's not going to dissuade anybody from running," she says.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com