This screenshot from Republican Nick Begich, left, challenges Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola about her retaining much of former Rep. Don Young’s staff during a statewide televised debate Wednesday. (Screenshot)

This screenshot from Republican Nick Begich, left, challenges Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola about her retaining much of former Rep. Don Young’s staff during a statewide televised debate Wednesday. (Screenshot)

Begich attacks Young’s staff

Former chair of Congressman’s campaign says staff ignored calls to watch TV, let lobbyists pen bills

This story has been updated to include a Twitter message containing comments former Rep. Don Young made shortly before his death about Nick Begich III’s candidacy.

Nick Begich III was a co-chair of Rep. Don Young’s reelection campaign two years ago, but has done a 180-degree turn on the people working there now that many of them are working for and endorsing Democratic successor Mary Peltola.

Begich, a Republican who along with Peltola are among the four candidates in the Alaska’s U.S. House race in the Nov. 8 general election, made scathing accusations Wednesday night against Young’s staff during the only statewide televised debate of the campaign. The former co-chair, during a portion of the debate where each candidate got to ask another candidate a question, referred to a visit to the congressman’s office in March of 2021 when he was considering running against the incumbent.

“What I saw was very disappointing,” Begich said. “Staff forwarding the phones to voicemail so they could watch episodes of ‘Friends.’ I saw lobbyists writing bills and sending them directly to the staff, getting rubber stamped and sent to committees. My question to Mary Peltola is why would you hire these staff and connect with these same lobbyists?”

Attempts Thursday by the Empire to reach staff members working for Young during Begich’s visit were unsuccessful. But Zack Brown, a former communications director for Young, posted a Twitter message Thursday of what he said was a previously unreleased comment by Young three weeks before his death to a group of Alaska Republicans.

“I hired that young man to show him the ropes, run for the job, don’t run against me…it’s not loyalty, nor is it honest…That’s a person I don’t want to serve me in Congress,” Young said.

Some of Young’s former staff, in interview with other media, noted Begich spent about a year working for Young, supposedly to better understand the legislative process, before launching his campaign against the incumbent in October of 2021.

“I don’t care for Nick Begich,” Meredith Kenny, a former communications director for Young, said in an interview with Business Insider. “From what I know of him he is dishonest and disingenuous, and I can’t support someone like that.”

Peltola has received widespread praise for retaining much of Young’s staff and reintroducing much of his pending legislation following his death this spring, with Begich saying nothing publicly about his allegations since that time until Wednesday’s debate. He also went on the attack against Peltola far more than previous candidate forums on other issues, in the wake of events during the past week including a poll showing her expanding a solid lead over her challengers and Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski announcing her support for Peltola.

Peltola, responding to Begich’s question without refuting his specific accusations, said “I think it’s really important to have continuity.”

“Every constituent from Alaska who’s come into our office has praised the Republicans that I’ve hired,” she said. “They say they know our issues, they know our state, we’ve worked together, we trust this person. I’m sorry you had a terrible experience, but I have had a very positive experience. I find my staff very hard-working and committed to our state.

“This is institutional knowledge that you can’t just recreate from somebody off the street overnight. I think it’s especially important when a Congressman passes away unexpectedly. There are a lot of things hanging.”

Begich, allowed a short rebuttal, said “I got into this race because I saw exactly what was going on, and I was upset by it and I’m still upset by it. These people are making decisions for you that have nothing to do with you. They have to do with special interests.”

The other two candidates in the race gave generalized answers without attacking Peltola’s retaining of Young’s staff.

“It think it’s good to have a diverse group of people helping to run this country,” Libertarian Chris Bye said, adding Young did allow some actions Bye characterized as misdeeds such as supporting people being fired for not getting COVID-19 vaccines.

Republican Sarah Palin, a former Alaska governor, said “the cure is to elect a strong administrator, even in the legislative branch.”

“They need to know how to run an office,” she said. “We need fighters and that includes getting rid of people who are trying to run the show when they are not an elected official.”

Begich, in an interview Thursday, said the people he observed in Young’s office were “totally different” than those he worked with as campaign co-chair the year before. The candidate also said he has brought up the accusations before, but “when Don Young passed away the conversation changed.”

Coverage by major media when Begich announced his candidacy has no mention of his allegations against Young’s staff, with the focus largely being on the challenger emphasizing a “next generation of leadership” theme.

When asked Thursday about specifics of his allegations, Begich said the ignored phone calls were during the day, not after hours. He also said his observation about lobbyists referred to emails they sent staff, since the lobbyists themselves were not allowed in congressional offices due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Peltola won the Aug. 16 special election to fill the remainder of Young’s term and announced she would retain much of his staff shortly after the results were certified on Aug. 31. When Begich was asked why he didn’t raise his accusations since then, he cited two reasons: many of the fall’s candidate forums have been short and/or not allowed the questioning of other candidates, and what he called recent email activity between those staff members and lobbyists making the issue relevant again.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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