Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) held a town hall event in Anchorage Monday night, detailing his positions on a variety of hot topics and fielding questions for over an hour.
A friendly crowd of mostly senior voters filled the room at the Muldoon Boys and Girls Club. Alaska Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who represents the Muldoon area, introduced Begich, saying he was very familiar with the venue; it was the site of many community council meetings attended by Begich during his days on the Anchorage Assembly.
Wielechowski called Begich the “Pride of East Anchorage” and said Begich is “constantly on the job.” It is not unusual for Wielechowski to receive text messages from Begich at midnight outlining a new idea while Begich is in Washington, D.C., four hours ahead.
Begich began by echoing his East Anchorage bona fides, saying his house was near Cheney Lake and that he was born off Boniface Parkway.
He talked about the importance of the campaign, saying the country has not paid this much attention to Alaska since it became a state and affected the balance of congressional representation.
Begich was critical of his opponent Dan Sullivan, who Begich said failed to join him in rejecting outside campaign expenditures unless their funding were disclosed. The deal would have taken 300 ads off the air per day. Begich declined to endorse a similar pitch by Sullivan restricting third party campaign ads.
Begich repeated that he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have voted together 80 percent of the time over the past year, a theme from one of his ads. No other state has that kind of split, he argued. If Congress spent more time focusing on the 80 percent of things on which it agrees, Begich said, more would get done.
With that, Begich began to address topics raised by the audience. The audience was not persuaded by the numerous attack ads in the campaign, but they were mentioned frequently in questions, indicating they are getting attention.
– Social Security- Begich outlined his plan for Social Security, which he said has only a one percent administration cost and was the only constant for some people during the financial crash of 2008. While Social Security will be solvent through 2037 with no action, Begich said scrapping the cap of payments into the Trust Fund for income above $117,000 would extend the life of Social Security another 75 years.
Begich admitted that while his proposal to eliminate penalties for public employees with second jobs had strong co-sponsorship, it would not get passed this year. The plan, he said, was to wrap it into a major tax reform bill next year that would enable lawmakers to offset the plan’s $80 billion cost over ten years with other provisions in the bill.
Begich pointed to a generational shift in the Senate. While the Senate has not had the will to address Social Security previously, younger members were coming in with children and considering the long term implications, he said. Interest to take action is therefore growing.
– Job as Mayor- Begich said that when he took office in Anchorage, he inherited a $33 million deficit. He pointed to the intersection of Lake Otis and Tudor in Anchorage as an example of what he could accomplish. For 40 years, said Begich, the city moaned about the traffic problem at the intersection, but when a gas station came up for sale, Begich had the city buy it to begin controlling the intersection corners. He joked his only regret is that it used to be a great intersection for campaigning because cars were so backed up, but now traffic flows smoothly.
– Care for Veterans- Alaska addressed care for veterans before the national VA scandal broke, Begich said. Consequently, veterans could now receive care at any Native clinic, including the 800 veterans who could seek treatment at the hospital in Nome.
Begich said he pushed for a $30 million grant for suicide prevention to help veterans. There is an effort to improve the ratio of medical professionals in the VA to patients, which he said is currently one for every 30,000 patients. One solution could be a pilot program in Alaska launched to help elders. Elders, he said, faced a stigma in their communities for certain types of veteran care, so they now had access to “telemedecine,” using things like Skype to communicate with health care workers. Begich said he also supported mobile vet clinics for rural veterans.
– Voting With Obama 97 Percent- In response to attack ad claims that he has voted with the president 97 percent of the time, Begich joked that opponents may have missed the part of the Constitution preventing the president from voting. Begich said Sullivan wanted to make the election about Obama, but Obama would be out of office in two years. This election is about Alaska, said Begich, and Sullivan is not saying what he will do for the state. Begich and Murkowski are both on the powerful Appropriations Committee, he said. It is unusual for two senators from the same state to be on Appropriations, but no two senators from the same state and same political party have ever sat on it.
Sullivan, said Begich, gave a weak performance in the Kodiak fisheries debate. While Sullivan didn’t seem to know anything about fish, an industry that employs 75,000 people in Alaska, Begich said, he is Chair of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard.
Begich said he has been all over Alaska during the campaign. He has been upriver on a skiff, and “I’ve been on snow machines that I do ride,” he joked.
– Arctic Issues- Begich said he added the Arctic to the list of topics covered by his subcommittee. There was no protest within 30 days, so he said the Arctic is now his subcommittee’s responsibility. Begich said the last Coast Guard bill passed unanimously and included language for a deep water Arctic port. A reauthorization of that bill includes forward operating bases. In the meantime, Begich said he worked to get two Coast Guard cutters stationed in Ketchikan, rather than Seattle.
Begich said he supports the U.S. becoming a signatory to the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty, which would add offshore territory to the U.S. equivalent to two Californias. Begich said it has the support of Democrats and a few Republicans, but it requires 67 votes to pass. Other countries that have not signed are Iran, Libya, and North Korea. China, said Begich, wants to divide control of the Arctic by population, a position the U.S. could counter if it signed on.
– Alaska National Guard- Begich said he brought his concerns about the Alaska National Guard to the Guard Bureau in 2011. He was advised that because the Guard is a state agency, the governor must request an investigation. This year, Begich introduced a bill to change that. He said they are working on the language, which must be sensitive to states’ rights, but Guards do receive tremendous amounts of federal funding.
Begich was critical of Gov. Sean Parnell and Parnell’s claim that he had only recently heard of problems in the Guard. Begich also could not understand how Parnell could have waited so long to take action, noting that during his time as mayor, Begich had appointed someone from outside his administration to conduct an investigation. There have been three attorneys general since 2011, Begich noted, and one of them is his opponent in this election.
– Deciding Vote on Obamacare- In response to attack ads that have called Begich the deciding vote on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Begich joked that, since it was an alphabetical roll call vote, technically, he was vote number six. Every senator that voted yes is hearing the same thing, said Begich. But he vowed to fix the bill, pointing out that he already amended it so that military members can keep their children on TRICARE until they are 26, just like everyone else. As for accusations about spending, Begich used the $800 million Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) as an example of fiscal responsibility. No one wanted it, said Begich, so he got on Appropriations and helped cut the funding.
– AO 37- Begich said he would be voting no in the upcoming referendum on AO 37. The old municipal code worked for the previous four mayors, who had varied political persuasions. Begich said that the reason Mayor Dan Sullivan had changed the code was that he couldn’t negotiate effectively.
– Mental Health- Begich advocated for wellness courts that try to break the cycle of incarcerating homeless people with mental health issues who commit crimes of survival. Parnell does not see this as a priority, said Begich,who will seek federal funding for the program. Begich said he has introduced a bill for $15 million in mental health first aid per year and incorporated $100,000 worth of student loan forgiveness into the ACA for mental health workers.
– Pre-K- Begich raved about pre-Kindergarten education, which he said returns between $7 and $15 for every dollar invested. There is minimum interest in the Senate, he said, because many believe education should be funded locally. Begich would like to see pre-K moved from Health and Human Services to the Department of Education where it would get more attention and funding.
– Makeup of Alaska Delegation- In response to a question of whether having senators from the same political party would be better for the state, Begich said Murkowski favored that idea, but the current split gives Alaska more power. Democratic rules allow senators to hold committee seats, while Republicans must rotate committee assignments, he said. That hurts the interests of small states like Alaska.
– Syria and ISIS- Begich said he supports airstrikes, but he doesn’t support putting American troops into Syria and voted against $500 million for Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. Countries in the MIddle East are not taking the initiative, expecting the U.S. to fight their battles for them, said Begich. Turkey is happy to see the Kurds being slaughtered by ISIS, and wealthy Kuwaitis have even funded them. Begich argued for destruction of ISIS oil fields, saying the U.S. should “go in there like [Gen. William] Sherman did” because the only people who could repair them live in Texas.
Begich found it informative that Congress couldn’t come up with $500 million for veteran care, but it magically appeared when it came time to fund Syrian rebels. It’s deja vu, he said. He held up Ukraine as an example of where the U.S. could do some good. Like the U.S. has in the past with the Tea Pot Dome scandal, Ukraine is struggling with corruption, but it is a young democracy that merely needs defense, rather than to be built from the ground up. Begich anticipated a Senate debate on the Mideast when Congress returns to D.C.
Begich concluded by saying he anticipated a tight race between himself and Sullivan, within one percent. He noted he defeated former Sen. Ted Stevens by a little over 1,000 votes and won his mayoral election by only 17. Begich emphasized his campaign efforts in rural Alaska and asked attendees to help him so that the election result would be clear on November 4.
Throughout the event, Begich seemed comfortable and in command of policy, despite the intensity of the campaign. Given his history of close elections, much will depend on his ability to communicate those qualities to voters down the stretch.