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Begich Prepares for Spotlight With Seat in Leadership

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
Sen. Mark Begich is viewed as an unofficial and self-appointed emissary between leadership and Democratic Members elected in 2006 and 2008. Begich will have a more formal role in leadership next Congress as the fifth-ranking Senate Democrat.

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.”

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