Sen. Mark Begich has barely been in the Senate two years, but the Alaska Democrat has aggressively thrust himself into everything from the 2009 economic stimulus to global warming deliberations to internal Democratic caucus changes. So it may seem strange to hear him say that he wasn’t angling for his new gig in Democratic leadership.
“I didn’t ask for it,” Begich said in an interview Friday. But he acknowledged that he might have a unique point of view to bring to the table as he prepares to become the No. 5 leader and chairman of the party’s Steering and Outreach Committee.
“I’ve always recommended structural changes and ... how we get our issues out there and what do we talk about,” Begich said about his outspoken role as a Member of the 2008 class and unofficial emissary to leadership for junior Members. He added that, “They’re asking me to be part of a team because I bring a different perspective that, I think, they recognize was missing.”
The No. 4 Democratic leader, Conference Secretary and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.), said Begich was chosen for his “thoughtful voice in our caucus.”
She added: “I think he represents a really good piece of how we want our party to look. ... I think he just is a very pragmatic voice and looks at policy in a way that I think is refreshing.”
Still, some Democrats wonder whether Begich made the right choice by joining the ranks of leadership so early in his tenure, given that Alaska trends Republican in most cycles.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who batted back entreaties to join the party leadership as DSCC chairman, praised Begich for taking the job, given his “red-state” perspective and ability to “bridge the gap between the newer classes and more senior Members.”
But when asked whether it was a smart political move for Begich, Warner said, “Time will tell.”
Begich said he would continue to defy leadership when necessary, noting he has bucked the party on oil and gas issues, gun rights and fiscal concerns. “When I was asked by a couple of Members would I be interested [in Steering], you know, I said, ‘If it helps out, but I’m not changing my stripes,’” he said. “Being in that fifth position does not mean that suddenly I’m a different person. If that’s the case, then I’m not interested.”
Begich’s insistence that he can be an agent of change in Washington, D.C., and that being a Democratic leader won’t alter his priorities makes him appear charming and naïve in a chamber that has been historically hard to budge. But his earnestly energetic and nonconfrontational style — infused with a healthy dose of ego — has clearly produced some results and made it hard for other Senators to ignore him.
Begich is one of the key drivers behind an uprising of the Democratic classes of 2006 and 2008, the result of which has been dramatic changes in the way the caucus and the leadership operates. And he has a penchant for walking unannounced into other Senator’s offices — including that of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — or into meetings to which he was not specifically invited.
One such impromptu meeting with Reid in late 2009 led to the a Democratic retreat, in which Members got up to discuss policy options, rather than being lectured to, Begich said.
“Before that retreat, I was hearing from people that they wanted something different,” he said. “I wrote up some ideas and went in there and said, ‘Harry, we should change this.’”
Indeed, that appears to be one of the first actions in a larger movement to change the way Senate Democrats operate and how they coordinate their efforts on the floor and in the media. Junior Democrats were particularly upset in 2009 that they lost the message war over health care reform to Republicans, even though the majority passed the bill last year.
After discouraged and restless junior Members continued to complain about a lack of coordination between public relations and policy objectives, Reid pledged earlier this year to restructure the process, and he made good on that promise when he announced Nov. 15 that he would merge the Democratic Policy Committee with his own communications “war room.” He put Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and current Steering Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) in charge of the merger, before elevating Begich.
What sets Begich apart from other Senators, Democrats said, is that he tends to try to build support for issues before he walks into Reid’s office.
“He hasn’t been coming in there and pushing his own agenda,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “Begich has been good about pushing a consensus agenda to some extent.”
In fact, Begich has been somewhat of an unofficial and self-appointed emissary to leadership for junior Members, the aide said.
“I think that he will challenge the old guard in a good way,” another senior Senate Democratic aide said. “He starts from a place of ‘Why not? Why can’t we do that?’ but he poses it in a nonthreatening way.”
Much of the former Anchorage mayor’s aggressiveness seems to come from his impatience with the pace of the chamber and the Members in it. When he had barely been in the Senate for a month, Begich said he got wind of a meeting to pare down the size of the stimulus and took it over. At one point, he said, he told fellow Senators, “No, I don’t want a speech” in order to get them to make their points more succinctly. He also dutifully attended global warming meetings and inserted himself into talks over oil spill liability, he said.
The second senior Senate Democratic aide agreed that Begich tends to insist on his colleagues’ brevity, despite the Alaskan’s own proclivity for wordiness. “He’s extremely opinionated and very talkative,” the aide said. “He does have a certain ‘smartest guy in the room’ complex to him. ... But maybe he’s coming to realize that here, he’s not always going to be.”