Senator-Elect Begich: Alaskans Wanted Change

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In the U.S. Senate race in Alaska, Democrat Mark Begich has claimed victory over six-term Republican incumbent Ted Stevens. The Anchorage mayor's victory moves Senate Democrats within two seats of a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. Senator-elect Begich tells Renee Montagne that he won because Alaskans are ready to focus on the future.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. After four decades in the Senate and a recent felony conviction on ethics charges, Alaska's Ted Stevens lost his seat on his 85th birthday, according to projections by NPR. As some of the final ballots were counted yesterday, two weeks after Election Day, Stevens was several thousand votes behind his Democratic challenger Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage. This means the Democrats will have at least 58 seats when the new Senate convenes in January. We reached Mayor Begich in Anchorage at his victory celebration. He stepped outside to talk to us to escape the noise, right into Alaska's cold night air.

Senator-elect MARK BEGICH (Democrat, Alaska): It's about seven degrees, and I'm actually out here without a jacket or suit because I thought I'd just do a short interview. But people are inside celebrating the campaign, and so I stepped out to make sure I make this call.

MONTAGNE: Well, we appreciate it. And you know, I think one of the first questions that people have, and certainly down in the Lower 48, is you have just overturned one of the longest political careers in the Senate's history, so much so that many of us know the name Ted Stevens. His name is there on your airport in Anchorage. How do you feel about having managed to defeat this person?

Senator-elect BEGICH: Well, I think, you know, when we started the campaign back in April of this year, we focused on what options we would give the voters to make sure they have a choice - that they think about the future of Alaska. Now, we're celebrating our 50th anniversary as a state this year, and people recognize the history of our great state, but they also see huge opportunities. And I believe that I could offer an opportunity that would represent Alaskans of the future.

MONTAGNE: Now, I do want to look ahead in this conversation to the future and what you would hope to be able to do. But before we move on to that, Senator Ted Stevens was convicted recently on seven felony charges. Alaska Representative Don Young is under investigation by the FBI for corruption. How much were these corruption charges and Senator Stevens' conviction - how much did that affect, do you think, the vote?

Senator-elect BEGICH: Well, I think in an odd way it was a mixture. For example, in Ted Stevens what we were facing was not only just a case of, you know, was he going through a trial, but also people really realized that even in the conviction situation, he will be facing the next year or two years of appeals and process through his caucus, and many other things that would take away his focus from Alaska. I think that's what people were concerned about.

MONTAGNE: They weren't concerned about sending, as some have put it, a convicted felon back to the Senate?

Senator-elect BEGICH: Well, I think that's part of it. But I think also, you know, there is a lot of long-term, you know, history with Ted Stevens. You know, 40 years he served our state, and he did a lot of great of service. But the last three or four years, I think his focus was not really on what Alaskans needed.

So I think the conviction played a role, but in an unusual way, in the sense that people were concerned about where are we going to be as a state 30 or 40 years from now, and who can bring us down that path? And I think in the case of Ted Stevens, they were concerned that maybe he would not be able to do that because of his personal challenges that he had in front of him.

MONTAGNE: You know, it's been suggested that President-elect Obama might be interested in a permanent ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What's your position on that?

Senator-elect BEGICH: Well, I would totally disagree. And I think, you know, that for him to make that statement this early would be a mistake. I think he first should take a look at what's the energy policy of this country? How are we going to become more independent as a country from foreign oil?

MONTAGNE: So, just briefly there, to turn that around, you would be in favor of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Senator-elect BEGICH: Absolutely. I've said that through the campaign that I think that's a reasonable approach based on the new technologies. The amount of footprint we would take out would be minimal. But I would put that into a long-term national energy policy. It would not be a project by itself. We have to look at the long-term energy requirements of our country and how we figure out how to get off foreign oil. That is the ultimate goal, because we are dependent so much on foreign oil that we are really strapped in what we can do as a country.

And we have to figure out new energy sources as well as how do we reduce demand as a country? Because that's a huge impact. That's why the oil prices have come from 140 down to 55 bucks a barrel, is because we have reduced demand by almost five percent. That's what we need to be focused on. And that in the long term for our country would be a great benefit.

MONTAGNE: Well, I just have one final question. And I know it's - did you just say seven degrees there where you're standing?

Senator-elect BEGICH: It's seven degrees.

MONTAGNE: I'm just going to hold you for one last question, and that's...

Senator-elect BEGICH: No, no problem, I appreciate it.

MONTAGNE: One Alaskan has become a household name, and that's Sarah Palin. You will be needing to work with her more closely, I would imagine, in these coming years. How - what is your relationship?

Senator-elect BEGICH: It's actually a very good relationship. As mayor of Anchorage, with 43 percent of the state's population, we have worked on a variety of projects from road projects to renewable energy to a variety of things. So we have a good working relationship. As a matter of fact, when she got nominated for vice president, I called her within a couple of hours and, you know, congratulated her. I wished her the best. But, you know, at the end of the day, you know, she is the governor of our state, and I will continue to work with her as I have done as mayor.

MONTAGNE: Mark Begich spoke to us late last night from Anchorage where he's the mayor. And of last night, he's Senator-elect Begich from Alaska. NPR called the election in his favor.

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