Sen. Begich Courts Voters in Rural Alaska

Senator Mark Begich last week visited the three lower Yukon River villages of Marshall, Alakanak, and Emmonak. He heard from dozens of people about infrastructure needs, and issues such as the importance of subsistence and the need for local law enforcement.

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begichDemocrats have the majority in the U.S. Senate by just six seats. So the race for Senator Mark Begich’s spot is being closely watched across the country. And many rural Alaskans know he’s counting on their votes to win reelection. Here are two employees of the Yukon Fisheries Development Association chatting as they left a public meeting with Begich held in Alakanak, a village of about 700 people. Offshore Fisheries Director Eric Olson comments on the significance of the election to General Counsel Gerry Davis:
“It’s pretty interesting to think that the votes that could control, that could decide, control the U.S. Senate could have been in that room”… “I know.”… “It’s just amazing.”

At a community meeting in Emmonak, city administrator Martin Moore praised Begich for coming to hear about local concerns, while reminding him of the importance of addressing Emmonak voters’ concerns:

“There are over a thousand people here in Emmonak. Of those thousand people, we have four hundred people that will vote. That’s important for you and for me to know and to understand that. So your trip here is very important both for you and important for the people who believe in your work,” Moore says.

But even though Begich, and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, both serve on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Begich says because Congress no longer allows earmarks, it’s hard for the Alaska delegation to get funds inserted in the budget for specific projects. Plus, he says, Congress has tightened its purse strings:

The national deficit’s been so bad but in the past six years, we’ve gone down from 1.4 trillion dollar deficit per year down to about half a trillion, moving in the right direction. And the economy is much stronger now in the lower 48. So everybody is feeling better about budgets this year. We bumped them up a little bit, budgets overall. So now we’re having some window where we can probably look at these programs again and see what we can do.

As residents talked about the need for erosion control, ports, housing, and water and sewer projects, Begich said the Alaska delegation has been able to get some laws changed to set aside money for places like Alaska, and is working to do more:

You know when you go to a city like Seattle and there’s housing needs for thousands of people, and here we’re looking for 10-15-20 units, we get kind of lost in the mix. So what we want is to try and separate us out a little bit.

Begich outlined work he’s already done to reduce energy costs, increase job training, and help with projects such as roads, runways, and a rock quarry project in Marshall. He described his support for subsistence, and the Senators and Cabinet officials who are learning about Alaska’s special needs by visiting, at his invitation.

Still, the rural vote for Begich isn’t assured, as Robert Andrews, the head of a boat-building shop in Emmonak made clear. He told Begich he could do more to help fishermen, saying “If I vote for you, you better think about us back here.”

Sen. Mark Begich and Robert Andrews, head of a boat-building shop in Emmonak. Andrews told Begich, “You’re helping a little bit now and then. Sometimes you deny the CDQs, but sometimes you agree with them … If I vote for you, man, you better think of back here.” Photo by Joaqlin Estus, KNBA.