Begich visits Homer, lays groundwork for campaign

With three Republican Party candidates fighting to oppose him in the general election, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, visited Homer and Seldovia last weekend as part of a grassroots campaign laying the groundwork for the November election. 

The Alaska Democratic Party soon plans to open a Homer office for Begich and gubernatorial candidate Byron Mallott. Mallott is the only Democrat running for the party nomination, and Begich faces token opposition in the primary from William Bryk of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Under federal election rules, if Bryk wins the Democratic Party nomination, he can run for U.S. senator for Alaska if he is a resident here on election day in November.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, 2010 Republican Party candidate for U.S. Senate Joe Miller, and former Alaska Attorney General and Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan are running for the Republican Party slot to oppose Begich. 

Sullivan and Miller visited Homer last month. Local Republicans will hold a debate 7-9 p.m. July 15 at Land’s End Resort. Organizer Eileen Becker said all three candidates have been invited.

Begich won his first term in the U.S. Senate when he defeated the late Sen. Ted Stevens in a close race in 2008. Meeting with party volunteers and the press at Homer Real Estate on Ocean Drive on Sunday, Begich said he noticed his 2008 campaign office on Ocean Drive is now a tobacco shop.

“I don’t know what that says,” Begich said. “Because we were smoking. We were smoking and won.”

Last Friday, Begich held a fundraiser at the home of Vincent and Marge Tillion. On Saturday he visited Seldovia and on Sunday he met with campaign volunteers. Earlier on Sunday he held a sportsmen’s roundtable at the Laughing Raven B & B on Baycrest Hill. Begich’s Homer visit was part of a Kenai Peninsula and Alaska tour, with stops in Kenai, Cooper Landing, Seward, Fairbanks and Barrow.

While open to the press, the Homer Real Estate visit was mainly to meet with Democratic Party volunteers who were going out knocking door-to-door that day. Before he arrived, Begich campaign workers instructed the volunteers on how to canvass.

Begich said that a grassroots, local campaign is important this election. He cited a recent New York Times article about how Begich and other candidates have been making a concerted effort to reach out to rural Alaska and Alaska Native communities.

“Just like last time, if we don’t get the vote out in places like here, Homer, or Kwethluk or Savoonga or other places like that, we’re not going to win this race,” Begich said.

In the Republican Party race, Sullivan has been getting a lot of national support and money, running a campaign as if he’s the presumed party nominee. When Sullivan spoke in Homer, he said little about Miller and Treadwell and blasted Begich and President Barack Obama.

“I don’t know how that’s going to shake out. We have to keep focused,” Begich said of the Republican candidates.

After looking at a recent debate of the GOP candidates, Begich said the Republicans are starting to go after each other.

“The way they’re campaigning, they’ve been all beating up on me. They now realize they have a primary,” he said. “I’ll take them on no matter who it is.”

In the general election, the race will come down to differences between him and the Republican Party winner, Begich said. Look at what the Republicans have said, he said.

“They would love to get rid of Medicare as we know it today,” Begich said. “When it comes to equal pay, they’re not for it. They would reduce the minimum wage.”

Sullivan in particular has criticized Begich for voting for the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. Begich said access to health care has been improved in Alaska.

“It used to be 34 percent couldn’t get it,” he said. “Today? Not getting denied. Is the law perfect? No. We’re going to try to fix it.”

Begich said he talked to one woman who didn’t have health care before.

“She’s grateful to finally have health care. She’s talking about it,” he said. “This is how we win this election, your story to another person, talking about it.”

Begich said he understands that a lot of Alaskans don’t like Obama. But when it comes to Alaska issues, “The Alaska delegation is 100 percent,” he said. “When you look at other issues, Lisa (Sen. Murkowski, R-Alaska) and I vote 75 percent together. There is no other delegation that votes that together. Overall, we’re working for one goal, what’s good for Alaska.”

In response to a question from Susan Cushing about how Begich will reach out to young people, Begich mentioned his support for a bill refinancing student loans at 4 percent. That bill failed in the Senate.

“That’s crushing people, crushing people and their families,” he said of high interest on student loans. “We loan money to banks at a quarter of a percent, but we cannot go out there for some reason and get a 4 percent loan? That makes no sense.”

As senator, Begich said he gets phone calls on a lot of issues both local and federal. Each night he tries to return five phone calls, he said. In Seldovia a guy asked him how to get an initiative on the state ballot. Begich answered the question.

“It wasn’t important to him that it was a state, local or federal issue,” he said. “What was important was that I had an answer.”

Former Homer Mayor Jack Cushing made a pitch for funding the Kevin Bell Ice Arena. Begich said he’d already talked to someone at an earlier meeting about that. When he was Anchorage mayor, Begich said he learned an important lesson about the hockey community.

“When the hockey community said this is what they want to get done, pretty much you got it done,” Begich said. “It wasn’t a comfortable feeling otherwise. Hockey is king.”

Several large political action committees, or Superpacs, have been funding ads against Begich. The Citizens United case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court made it possible for corporations to give large campaign contributions. Begich said he supports a constitutional amendment overturning that.

“If corporations want to be people, they can go serve in those wars,” he said.

When asked about how he would vote on Ballot Measure 1 in the August primary, the referendum repealing Senate Bill 21, the petroleum tax bill, Begich said he hasn’t taken a public position.

“I would have done something a little different. Does the industry need some certainty? Yes,” he said. “Here’s the issue that I focus on when it comes to oil and gas: For Alaska, I have a bigger challenge, and that is making sure people understand what we’re doing up here for oil and gas.”

Both sides on Ballot Measure 1 want Begich to make a statement, he said.

“I think the people will speak on this,” he said. “Either way, it will be back in the Legislature.”

In speaking with Alaskans, Begich looks for “the common thread that drives us to be in the state,” he said.

“I belong to the party of ‘A,’ and that’s a very simple party,” Begich said. “It’s the party of Alaska. … I think we’re a unique breed up here in Alaska.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.