Mark Begich fights to put Alaska back on the map


“Leaving us off the map is just a sign that people don’t understand the importance of our state,” Alaska Sen. Mark Begich says. (Marc Lester/For The Washington Post)
January 21

Sen. Mark Begich found yet another map that made him angry. Settling in for his 10-hour commute back to Alaska from the District last Thursday, he turned to the back page of a Capitol Hill newspaper and saw an ad for the Business Roundtable featuring a drawing of the lower 48 states.

“I was like, ‘Where’s Alaska?’ ” Begich said in a phone call from a remote northern region of his home state. “If I could get enough cellphone data out here, my staff would already have an e-mail about trying to correct this.”

After five years as a senator, the 51-year-old has developed a predator’s eye for such offending maps and he has his own kind of trophy case to prove it. “You’re right — we goofed,” Cathy Coughlin, AT&T senior executive vice president, wrote him in a now-framed letter that hangs in his Senate office. Beside the letter is a mock-up of a new ad complete with a disembodied Alaska floating off the coast of California. “You have my humble apology for our design flaw,” Jack Gerard, the chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, conceded in a different framed letter, showing an unusual amount of contrition for the oil industry. Even Sen. Al Franken, famous for his ability to draw the United States by memory, finds himself up on the glory wall with the likes of Honda and the National Mining Association. “I have now added both Hawaii and your state to my map,” Franken scrawled in a handwritten note. “I think of you every time I draw Alaska, cursing under my breath. Anyway, happy birthday.”

The relentless correcting of maps may seem like a petty act of a senator with too much time on his hands. But this isn’t just a lark, it’s a survival technique. Survival to keep Alaska in the American imagination and thus never completely out of sight from the country’s businessmen and appropriators.

Part of this Ahabian cartography project is to please his constituents — to whom he can now brag about actually getting something done — as he goes into one of the most difficult election campaigns of the 2014 cycle. Begich is one of the four Democrats up for reelection in a Republican state, all of whom would rather localize the election than run on unpopular national issues, such as Obamacare and votes to raise the debt limit. This means calling for a smaller federal budget, as long as Alaska — a state with an outsize need for outside money — keeps getting its fair share. Reminding people the state still exists is one way to do that. But for Begich, it’s about more than just that. It’s deeply personal.

Sean Sullivan takes a look at a Senate race where a Democratic incumbent is facing a packed Republican primary field. (The Washington Post)

“Leaving us off the map is just a sign that people don’t understand the importance of our state,” Begich said recently in his office. He has narrow eyes, with caterpillar eyebrows that crawl into a sharp uppercase M when he talks and a helmet of brown hair that looks like it would keep its integrity through an Alaskan cyclone. “A state this big and this rural has a set of issues hard to imagine. We can have wind forces of 120 miles per hour, and we’ll just call it a Tuesday.”

Understanding Alaska’s physical dangers isn’t just a figure of speech for Begich. He was only 10 years old in 1972, but he still remembers when President Richard Nixon called his house in Washington, D.C., to say his father, the state’s lone congressman at the time, had vanished en route to Juneau for a campaign fundraiser. He remembers flying back to Alaska and having to cram into a one-bedroom apartment with his mother and five siblings, and the fruitless 39-day search for the plane that had gone down carrying his father and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs.

“It was horrifying,” Begich said, bouncing his steepled hands off one another.

The state had taken his father but would remain a central part of his identity. The family history with Alaska goes back to before it was a state. His parents moved as teachers when it was just a territory, when the roads were so bad it was actually easier to drive on them when they were covered in snow. Begich remembers growing up in Anchorage as if it were a pioneer-version of “Leave it to Beaver”: crossing a creek to get to his log cabin kindergarten classroom, dips in the lake and traditional Midwestern dinners of sloppy joes and tuna on rice.

Of course, painting a Norman Rockwell portrait of his home state is no surprise. The question is, can the native-son strategy keep someone in office even if the political tides are shifting? Is Begich an independent-thinking Alaskan staple or just a Democrat who voted for Obamacare? Weathering the political storm will mean convincing his constituents that he is different than your typical D.C. “career politician,” the likes of which have been suffering from depressingly low approval ratings.

“People like to say that I’m bred for this job, that’s not the case,” he said sitting beside a picture of him and his father taken in the House chamber. “That’s not true. When my father died, I had no interest in politics because that was the career that took him away from me.”

But eventually he got the itch. He won a spot in the Anchorage Assembly in 1988, became mayor in 2003 and then joined the U.S. Senate in 2009 after defeating longtime incumbent Ted Stevens, who in 2010 also died in an Alaskan plane crash. In the past, the way to put Alaska on the map has been through earmarks — the process of directing funds to special projects. But Begich defeated Stevens, the so-called Emperor of Earmarks, and the House of Representatives — which has first dibs on spending bills — forbade the practice in recent years.

This is cause for concern for Alaskans and for Begich, who says he is one of the few senators who “doesn’t think ‘earmarks’ is a dirty word.” In past years, Begich might have been able to curry favor by opening a spigot of special- interest money on the state (a strategy that helped keep Stevens in office for longer than any other Republican senator in history), but now that’s a bit harder. Which is not to say that Alaska won’t get its share of federal support. The state received the most funds per capita from the 2009 stimulus, and the federal government remains a major source of employment. It’s hard, after all, to forget about a state with the second-biggest oil reserves in the country.

And yet, such a large and rural state does come with a special set of issues. Last week a group of men and women from the small town of Shishmaref visited the Capitol to testify that their home may soon cease to exist. The changing climate has their island village eroding into the Chukchi Sea. Hoping to get funds to shore up their home before it’s too late, the group of about a dozen constituents told their story to Begich in his office.

“Because of a storm, the back of our house and our back stairs were dangling over the cliff in the ocean,” said Debra Hersrud, a 17-year-old high school senior. “I hope to go back after college, but it might not be there.”

Get Alaska on the map, Begich thinks to himself, because between the rising waters and shrinking icecaps, the topography may be changing forever. So Begich invites fellow lawmakers and members of the administration to come visit whenever they can. He explains the importance of federal support in a place where the government and oil combine to help employ the majority of the workforce. He fights to keep military bases funded and F-16 jets housed in his state, and he supports climate-change legislation, knowing that Alaska is ground zero for its effects.

“I want it on the map, but I want as many people on the ground; to feel it, to touch it,” he said. “To touch it before it’s gone.”

Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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