Editor’s Note: U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, sat down with the Empire on Thursday July 3. The interview has been edited for length.
During a campaign tour around the state, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, sat down with the Juneau Empire last week to discuss national issues the next Congress will be facing.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of corporate rights? A few years ago corporations were allowed to assemble PACs and spend as much money as they want in elections. Now, corporations have religious rights — where do you see this headed?
Begich: “At the rate we’re going, we’ll probably have corporations suit up and go fight wars. They consider corporations people, so my view is if you’re going to consider them people, suit up. Go overseas and fight these wars. What I’m seeing more and more is this continual imbalance between individual rights and these entities. The Founding Fathers never, you know, to believe corporations would be people would be unheard of. The Founding Fathers looked at individual rights to be people, not some entity created with laws that back then they had no clue would be in the future and how corporations are set up as they are today. So I think it is creating more and more, as time goes on, an imbalance, and individuals are going to lose out... It’s really starting to limit individuals’ ability to have their own say and voice in these issues that the courts are (there) to protect. It’s basically becoming a corporate court rather than a people’s court. People should be nervous about this.”
How would you contrast your initial run in 2008 against Ted Stevens to what you’re going through now? Your challenger hasn’t even been selected yet, but it seems like it’s a very different atmosphere this time around.
Begich: “That’s the big difference. The other difference is my opponent started out — and when I say, ‘opponent,’ it’s the whole group of them, including the PACs — all they did is start out attacking...right out of the gate... Second, you don’t have a presidential race so you don’t have anything overshadowing, and this becomes the race of the state — other than the governor’s race — that is kind of the focus. Then you have all this money that is being plowed down, and you have money that is different than the past. In the past, you might have a group that actually has a membership, that actually has association, that actually have issues they work on running ads against you or for you. Here you just have very wealthy people who write big checks. That’s a big difference, and these people don’t care about Alaska — if they did, they wouldn’t have closed the refinery in Fairbanks and leave dirty water for the governor to have to sue them — the Koch brothers — to clean up while they’re spending millions beating on me... They’d rather spend their money fighting national politics than doing what they should be doing in the communities they invest in.
How do you think things should be handled right now in Iraq?
Begich: “The Iraqi government needs to broaden its inclusion of different groups, which is what got them into this trouble. They excluded certain groups and now they’re in this situation that is very uncomfortable for a lot of powers that be because now Iraq is unstable.
And the new region, ISIS?
Begich: “That’s a terrorist organization, don’t get me wrong.”
Exactly, it’s essentially a terrorist state — they’ve defined boundaries.
Begich: “They have defined their boundaries. I wouldn’t call it a full terrorist state, it has control over a region ... But you now have interest in that you have Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia and some others now that don’t like ISIS and that control. So as a region they need to figure this out. We can’t keep coming in and being the police powers everywhere — we can’t. We spent many years there with advisors and troops, and look what happened. The first time they had a real fight, they ran — the Iraqis — in a lot of ways, they’ve got to figure this out. They’ve got to create a government that’s more inclusionary, and at the same time, they have to figure out as a region that organizations like this are not acceptable.”
What are your thoughts on what’s happening with the VA? Not just the scandal, but also the new person replacing former Department of Veterans Affairs head Eric Shinseki — and what kind of involvement and conversations have you had with this issue?
Begich: “It’s clear what happened in Arizona and what’s happening in other states is appalling, and individuals that created fake lists or fraud should be held accountable — and if the Justice Department needs to come in, I’m ok with that... We do need to reform the VA system.”
There’s been an epidemic in the US with gun violence — particularly youth in schools. As a nation, how do we solve this problem, where we have teens that are beyond apathetic — it’s domestic terrorism but without a purpose other than, ‘I don’t like my life so I want to hurt others.’ How do we go about trying to heal that?
Begich: “There’s several things on this front that I’ve worked on — one that is now actually part of the budget. It’s called Mental Health First Aid. I did it when I was mayor, I made sure my police officers — voluntarily, we didn’t mandate it at first — to have the experience and training of how to differentiate between someone who’s experiencing a mental health issue versus someone who’s not. So when they’re entering that scene, there’s different mechanisms to handle that individual... What you need within the environment that you’re having these young people in this situation — the common denominator is mental health issues — but teachers are not trained necessarily...to make sure they have the ability to recognize and decelerate that situation very quickly... Second to this is, within schools, some of those kids are on a mission to not only do damage to others but to kill themselves — suicide. So I have a bill that’s pending right now, $30 million a year... What we want to do is put some hard resources to really understand, especially with the young people...what is happening here that we have to reconfigure things or put better tools on the ground in our schools or wherever it might be, but there is no simple answer to it... (Begich, speaking on working relationship with families of Virginia Tech, Newtown shooting victims) Those guys and I disagree on background checks, because I say that’s not the holy grail. The holy grail is you’ve got to solve this issue — you’ve got to make sure that 600,000 people who have been deemed by state courts to be mentally incompetent are on the background check system.