Democrat gubernatorial candiate Mark Begich, a former U.S. Senator for Alaska and former mayor of Anchorage, speaks during an interview in Juneau on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Democrat gubernatorial candiate Mark Begich, a former U.S. Senator for Alaska and former mayor of Anchorage, speaks during an interview in Juneau on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Begich talks Juneau issues on last campaign stop before election

Democratic governor candidate opposes unequal treatment for ferry system

Shaking hands and talking to potential voters in Sacred Grounds Café on Friday afternoon, Mark Begich was interrupted by the booming voice of Tlingit and Haida President Richard Peterson.

The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska hasn’t endorsed a governor candidate this year, but Peterson had no problem offering his personal support.

“I’m honored to say I personally endorse Mark Begich … and thank him for stepping forward,” Peterson told the crowded room.

Four days before the general election, Alaska’s Democratic candidate for governor stopped in Juneau and went on a walk along Channel Drive with the Juneau Empire to discuss Juneau-specific issues. Two months ago, Begich appeared on stage in a debate hosted by the Juneau Chamber of Commerce.

Since then, one of the three men on that stage has dropped out of the race, and the contest between Begich and Republican candidate Mike Dunleavy has grown much closer. While the race has changed, Begich’s views haven’t.

Juneau Access and Second Crossing

He said he still would not restart the effort to build a road north from Juneau. When asked about the remaining money from the Juneau Access Project, he said he would like to keep it in Juneau.

“There’s been a lot of talk about the second bridge, which seems to be more compatible in the sense of what people are interested in, and that interests me,” he said. “You know, that’s a good project and probably easier to build.”

He said that’s not a certainty; he’d want to hear from the community first.

The Alaska Marine Highway System

Without a road north, what would the ferry system look like under a Begich administration?

“It’s going to be treated like (hard surface) highways. And the first thing is, I don’t support the idea of modeling it like the (Alaska) Railroad,” Begich said.

Two years ago, Southeast Conference (the regional economic development organization for Southeast) signed an agreement with the administration of Gov. Bill Walker to create a new long-term strategic plan for the ferry system.

The result of that agreement is the Alaska Marine Highway Reform Project, an approach that looks to the Alaska Railroad as a model and envisions an independent ferry authority. Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, introduced legislation along those lines this year, but the measure did not advance.

Why does Begich oppose that approach?

“Because the railroad is a profit-making entity and therefore it can sustain all the elements of this idea,” Begich said.

He said he envisions the ferry system as a beneficiary of his proposal to issue general obligation bonds for capital projects across the state.

“Whatever the highest priority is,” he said, “if it’s an actual vessel or some deferred maintenance. There are some deferred maintenance at some of the facilities onshore that we have to really deal with.”

Alaska will soon have two new Alaska-class ferries in service, but those ships were built to serve the now-canceled Juneau road and are ill-suited for routes beyond northern Lynn Canal because they have no crew quarters, meaning their operating hours are limited.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has proposed adding crew quarters to those vessels. Begich said he doesn’t know enough about that idea yet, but he would rely on the advice of the ferry system’s three core user groups (as he sees them): residents, tourists and businesses.

Tourism

Juneau is in the middle of defending itself against a lawsuit brought by the cruise industry, which alleges the city has improperly used passenger fees. The city has spent several hundred thousand dollars defending itself against the lawsuit, which has broad implications for cruise ports across Alaska. The state briefly filed, then withdrew, a letter of support for the city’s position. Would a Begich administration offer help to the city?

He said he’d try to negotiate an end to a lawsuit, something the city has already tried (and failed) to do.

“My objective would be to sit down with these guys immediately and try to resolve this,” he said. “Now why say this is because I dealt with all the CEOs of these companies when I was a U.S. senator. … I have relationships with these CEOs. My objective would be, we’re going to settle this out.”

Climate change and LGBTQ rights

Begich has a three-part climate-change plan on his website, but when asked what his administration would do beyond that plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Alaska, he referred back to the plan, explaining how energy efficiency measures in new construction would reduce the need for central heating.

Statewide debates have tended to focus on economic issues rather than social issues, so the Empire asked whether his administration would push for antidiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Alaskans.

“With your own workforce, I think you can have control over (that); I don’t know if you can have a broad sweep, but I’d support that,” Begich said. “You might be able to do it further, but it might take statutory efforts. I’d support that.”

Fisheries and Walker’s legacy

On fisheries management, Begich said he wants to see the Alaska Board of Fish move away from second-guessing state biologists and toward the recommendations of those biologists.

“We’re losing good staff people because they no longer, I think, feel they’re part of the equation as much as they could be with their knowledge of the science of fisheries,” Begich said.

In Juneau, many residents supported another term for Walker, hanging signs of support on their homes and planting them in their yards. Polls indicate most of Walker’s former supporters have come to back Begich. Would a Begich administration represent another term for Walker?

“No. I wouldn’t say it like that,” he said.

While the two men agree on Medicaid expansion, the need for the state to work with Native tribes and the need to push the trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline, “I think there are things that I believe that he has done in his administration will be different in the way we operate.”

In the last televised debate of the election, for example, Begich said the state needs a “full fiscal plan,” a phrase commonly used by Walker. Begich said he would sit down with lawmakers before the session to determine what can be done in the Legislature’s year.

“You know, part of being governor is not only working with the bodies — you know, the minority, the majority, of the House and Senate — but also recognizing where they’re at. And understand that as governor you have to take the heat sometimes to get them to move forward, and take the political hits when necessary. At the same time, give them a pathway,” Begich said.

That said, he’s not afraid to play hardball in those negotiations.

“I’m not afraid to veto a budget if it’s not a full plan. We cannot do this piecemeal. That’s what got us into this mess,” he said.

At Sacred Grounds, Peterson wrapped up his speech by telling attendees, “We have to get Mark elected. The state can’t afford four years of Dunleavy.”

One of the people who was listening was Caroline Demmert, who said she remembers working with Begich on homelessness issues during his time as a U.S. Senator.

She supported Bill Walker for governor.

“When Walker walked away … my vote changed,” she said.

Demmert said she watches people closely, trying to tell if they’re trustworthy and mean what they say.

“We have to learn to trust people,” she said, “and I trust him.”


• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or 523-2258.


Democrat gubernatorial candiate Mark Begich, a former U.S. Senator for Alaska and former mayor of Anchorage, speaks during an interview in Juneau on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Democrat gubernatorial candiate Mark Begich, a former U.S. Senator for Alaska and former mayor of Anchorage, speaks during an interview in Juneau on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Democrat gubernatorial candiate Mark Begich, a former U.S. Senator for Alaska and former mayor of Anchorage, speaks with Juneau Empire State Reporter James Brooks during an interview in Juneau on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Democrat gubernatorial candiate Mark Begich, a former U.S. Senator for Alaska and former mayor of Anchorage, speaks with Juneau Empire State Reporter James Brooks during an interview in Juneau on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

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