MFD Interview with Mark Begich


Mark Begich is the mayor of Anchorage, the biggest city in Alaska. He is the first mayor of the city who was born there, and is the son of Alaska's third congressman, Nick Begich. Begich's parents first came to the state in 1957 as teachers. After serving as the superintendent of military schools at Fort Richardson, Nick was elected to the state senate and then the US House of Representatives. While campaigning for reelection in 1972, Nick's plane disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska. Mark was 10 years old.

At age 26, Begich was first elected to the Anchorage assembly, where he served nearly 10 years. He was elected three times by his colleagues as chairman, the city's second highest office. In 2003, he beat the incumbent mayor and a two-term former mayor to become Anchorage's mayor. Three years later, Begich was re-elected by one of the largest margins in city history.

Mark and his wife of 17 years, Deborah Bonito, live with their young son Jacob in East Anchorage.

Mitch Manzella: Good morning, Mark. So you're facing a primary election to become the Democratic nominee for US Senate.

Mark Begich: Right, our primary is on August 26th. Like every primary, if you have one or 100 candidates, it's a fight. But we feel comfortable in where we are, and our primary is right at the beginning of the Democratic National Convention. As the convention kicks off, we'll be finishing our primary election.

Manzella: What kind of music do you like?

Begich: I like the old classics predominantly. When I'm asked what I want to hear on the radio, I say some Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, or Janis Joplin. But with a six year old, I don't get a lot of choices, so it's often Hannah Montana or Christina Aguilera. I remember that when Jacob was about three, we were at a garage sale where there was some Ray Charles playing. He recognized it in a flash from the music we play in his bedroom at night -- songs by Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. I like all kinds of music, and what I choose depends on how good or bad that day has been.

Manzella: As a child growing up in the 70's, did any of the music you were hearing inspire you to fight for social justice and seek a career in public office?

Begich: It's OK to say it -- I grew up in the disco era -- but that's not necessarily my inspirational music. I like Dylan, Springsteen, the Stones, and old 60's Motown. When Marvin Gaye is singing, you hear a real social-justice message -- which today remains inspiring when I hear something like that driving home at the end of the day. I recently purchased the soundtrack to Glory Road after seeing the movie. It's a great soundtrack from a great story of a situation that people never thought could happen: a white coach in a southern town taking an all-African American basketball team to the championship. The music is very uplifting, and the movie itself provides such impact and inspiration. Though there is some new music that takes a stand for social justice, music in the 60's and 70's had more of a national message. People would get in their cars and drive for miles to take part in a rally for civil rights and against segregation. Young people were out there fighting for freedom, and the issues we face today are nothing compared to the battles that we fought then.

Manzella: What part do you think that music plays in the political awareness of today's young people?

Begich: When you look at Bono and some of the efforts he's been making globally, he's able to leverage his power and position into furthering social justice, and uses his music to further engage people in that cause. Though my son is only 6, he has a great selection of music that he likes to listen to, including the Dixie Chicks. There's a group who were literally banished because of their position on the war as artists, but today, in a lot of ways, they were proven right -- not only necessarily on the issue of the war, but on the fact that they should have the right to speak out on anything, anywhere, anytime, everywhere, as Americans. That's why we fight wars and fight for our country -- for that right. The Dixie Chicks have a live song on one of their albums about getting out to vote. No matter who you vote for, you have to get out there and do it.

My first year as mayor in Anchorage, I was very active with MTV's Rock the Vote as a way of registering voters. I also did a program with the Urban League with voter registration and education events centered around hip-hop concerts and issues that young people care greatly about, like the environment, the war, and education. So music still has an impact, it's just a different time. The songs of today might seem radical to adults now, but if you take those adults and go back to the 60's, I guarantee that their parents thought the songs they were listening to then were way off the deep end. But at the end of the day, music is a common thread that can bring people together from many different cultures, backgrounds, and economic strata to talk about an issue, all across the world, and across all boundaries.

Manzella: What have you learned from the success of Barack Obama's campaign in raising the enthusiasm of young voters and getting them involved in politics ?

Begich: The Obama campaign has done something powerful -- they've re-energized young people, giving them something to hope for and believe in. He's inspired a new generation, as well as people of my generation. In some ways, you can become cynical of the political arena. Though I'm in politics, I'm somewhat cynical of the people in it, because it seems like all they're in it for is themselves, and they forget the common good. They see politics as a business or a job, but it's really public service. What I think is interesting is the way that Obama has mobilized the small donor to be part of the equation. They get a voice equal to the large donor -- whether you donate $10 or the maximum donation of $4600, you're going to get the same say, or maybe even more say, because that's just the way he's run his campaign. I really appreciate that, because my campaigns have always been about small contributors. There's a lot to learn from Obama's campaign about hope. You don't just have to do the political thing, you can do the right thing, and at the end of the day, people will feel appreciated.

Manzella: The Internet has really changed the political landscape. You support net neutrality, which is great, but what do you think the Net can do to provide a way for young people to directly participate in the electoral process?

Begich: The Net is a critical part of campaigning today. When I ran for mayor in 2000 -- a campaign I lost -- I put up a campaign website, No one was using websites back then for campaigning. I think we had 11 candidates running for mayor that year, and none of the other candidates had one. At every campaign stop, I just kept saying, "Go to my website" for information and correspondence, and eventually the other candidates started catching on. And there was a series of stories in the newspaper about campaigning in Anchorage with these things called websites. Think about how ridiculous that sounds just 8 years later. What the Internet has done that campaigns could never have done by themselves is engaging a younger group of folks to become a higher percentage of the voting public because it is in depth and interactive -- you can have questions and comments, you can blog. It's also changing the debate. You can't just throw up a 30-second commercial and hope that everyone believes what you say. People want to see some meat, and they can use the Internet to access it.

I think we need to be very careful about federal regulation that limits who can have access to the Internet. What's great about the Net is it's like a free highway -- full access for anyone, anytime, anywhere. It doesn't matter who you are, you can get on the Net. That's a powerful thing that has to be preserved, and we can't allow big business or government to regulate who, when, or how you have access.

Manzella: Where do you get your news?

Begich: I'm from that mixed generation -- I'm a consumer of newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. Wherever I travel I always get the local paper, because I'm curious about what's going on in the local community and how that relates to what we're doing in Anchorage. But I also use Google several times a day. And there are several online news sources that I get sent to my Blackberry, like CNN, Money, CNBC, and the Wall Street Journal. I keep all of that on my homepage so that I can just flip it on and see what's cooking.

Manzella: Looking ahead to January, let's assume that you win, and that the Democrats win a 60-vote plurality in the Senate. What will Senator Begich do to turn our country around ?

Begich: That is THE question. Part one is working on an energy policy for this country that is broad based. That's critical to the long-term economic survival of our country, and also for our national security. We get mixed up into wars and conflicts because of oil. We're in an economic crisis because of energy costs. It doesn't matter if you live in a small village in Alaska where you're paying $7 to $8 a gallon for heating fuel, or you're living in a city in the lower 48. The cost of energy is taking money right out of the pockets of everyday working families and causing economic hardship. What I'm hopeful for is a real energy policy -- none of this legislation once in a while, but real hardcore energy policy that talks about renewable energy, alternative energy, more conservation and efficiency, and also developing new technologies that enable the United States to become the world leader in new technology around renewable energy. The other, more complex issue that we can get to with a working majority is access to health care. I think it's appalling that as a country this wealthy, this diverse in our medical services, we are not able to provide full affordable health-care access to every American. That's a huge challenge.

Another issue that concerns me is our national debt, which is now over $10 trillion. Twenty percent of every dollar that you pay in income tax goes to pay the interest on that debt. We have to get that under control, and it's going to take some tough calls. It's something that the country has to be working together on. If we do not resolve this issue, or at least get on a path to resolution, we'll be in a situation economically and politically where the country will be in harm's way.

Manzella: Here's a question from a musician named Chris Wood, from Medeski, Martin, and Wood. "What value do you see in early education programs that focus on the arts and music, and what will you do to bring more of these programs to our nation's schools?"

Begich: Excellent question. I do a lot of work with my wife here in Alaska with regards to early education -- from birth to age five -- which is a powerful time in a young person's life where you can have great influence. Reading, math, languages, music, and art -- they're all equal in my mind. I think we should be very aggressive, especially in the early years. I know with Jacob, when we were playing music for him very early, it influenced him. I can already see that. I'm very cautious about federal mandates down to local community, but I think more resources should be available for early learning in the broadest sense possible. Arts, music, and culture education is an excellent way to do that. I have seen that it has long-term impact on young people.

Manzella: What would you like Music for Democracy to ask a musician on your behalf?

Begich: In the hectic life that musicians have, how do they balance their careers and families to make sure that their kids grow up in a normal setting? How does a big star raise a child so they can have as many choices as they want?

Manzella: Is there any other issue that you'd like to cover before we wrap up?

Begich: The only other thing to talk about is the environment and global climate change. Young people of today should be highly focused on how they can play a role and engage one another in dealing with the future of our world. It's critical. It's a result of not having an energy policy, and now we're paying that price. It's a very significant price. I would hope as this election season continues on, and as the new president gets elected and a new Senate comes into office, that young people really mobilize around the issue of climate change, and what they want their government to do to have an impact over the long term.