Begich bids farewell to U.S. Senate

Democratic Sen. Mark Begich bid an emotional farewell to the U.S. Senate on Dec. 11, saying he was proud of the work he had done and urging his colleagues to not let politics get in the way of doing the people’s work.

While polls show low approval ratings for Congress, people still look to congressional members for certainty and guidance and to hear what they will do to solve problems, he said.

“And it will be incumbent upon the next Congress to sit down and work together,” Begich said. “It’s going to be tough because the politics of today are about the moment in time. It’s not about the long term. This is an incredible challenge that has to be dealt with in some way.”

His remarks were broadcast from the Senate floor by CSPAN.

Begich lost his bid for a second term to Republican Dan Sullivan by about 6,000 votes, his defeat part of a national wave that saw the GOP regain control of the Senate. Republicans here as in other states made the race a referendum on President Barack Obama and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. Begich insisted the race was not about Obama but about the future of the state, and he cast himself as an independent thinker, willing to stand up to Obama and work across party lines.

On Thursday, Democratic colleagues praised Begich on the Senate floor as a pragmatist and optimist who knows his state well. Begich was born and raised in Alaska and is a former mayor of the state’s largest city. His father, the late Nick Begich, was a U.S. representative whose plane went missing in Alaska in 1972.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, said he took joy in knowing “that God ain’t finished with you yet.”

In a statement, Alaska’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, said Begich is clearly passionate about Alaska and the emotion he showed on the floor was real and heartfelt. During the campaign, she endorsed Sullivan and sought to distance herself from Begich, who touted their level of cooperation on Alaska issues.

“We worked hard on Alaskan issues like protecting Eielson Air Force base and working against the threats of Frankenfish, and I appreciate his willingness to serve,” Murkowski said. Critics of genetically modified salmon often refer to it as “frankenfish.”

Over the last six years, Begich said his office responded to more than 360,000 individual letters, emails and calls, a number equal to roughly half the population of Alaska. He cited work he did toward allowing oil and gas development in the Arctic and on veterans, military and other issues.

He said he always told his staff it didn’t matter to him who sponsored a bill but rather if it was a good idea.

Begich choked up talking about the history of the Senate, his staff and his wife, Deborah Bonito, who he said allowed him to do his public service, which necessitated making long flights to and from Alaska on weekends.

“She has taken care of Jacob when I couldn’t,” he said, referring to the couple’s son. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket as he fought back tears. “I love her dearly. Thank you.”

“To end, I’ll just say this. It has been a true honor to serve the U.S. Senate, to serve the people of Alaska and to know every day, we — me, my members and my staff, colleagues who worked with me — contributed a little bit to making life better for an Alaskan, for Alaskans, for this country,” Begich said. 

“There’s no place like serving in this body and doing what I could to make a difference.”