Alaska editorial: Alaskans will have a real choice for U.S. Senate come November

Posted: Monday, April 28, 2008

The race is on: Democrat Mark Begich will take on Republican Ted Stevens for the U.S. Senate.

Regardless of who wins, this is a good thing for Alaskans.

To have a healthy democracy, voters need to have meaningful choices. In this contest, that's what Alaskans will get.

Anchorage's popular two-term mayor is the strongest challenger Sen. Stevens has ever faced. Sen. Stevens, though under FBI investigation and slowed a bit by age, is still a formidable force. The longest-serving Republican in U.S. Senate history, he was recognized as "Alaskan of the Century," with good reason. His federal funding prowess makes him the state's second-largest economic force, above all else but oil.

Mayor Begich says Alaskans want "change." What sort of change he plans to offer isn't clear yet. Surely Alaskans don't want to stop supping so well at the federal funding trough.

Perhaps Mayor Begich means Alaskans want a U.S. senator who is untainted by scandal. Sen. Stevens' Girdwood home was raided by the FBI. His son Ben is under fire for lucrative work on issues involving the senior Stevens. Sen. Stevens has also benefited from controversial real estate deals that helped him become wealthy late in life.

Mayor Begich, however, is no stranger to controversial real estate deals himself. Though he is not under investigation, he has done well economically and politically by working with influential political players.

And Ted Stevens has not been indicted for anything. Even if he were, American politics is full of cases in which indicted, and even convicted, politicians win re-election.

Sen. Stevens has a huge reservoir of good will with Alaskans, but it's not enough for him to say, "I have seniority. I have experience and clout," and expect to win. There's more to being a senator than bringing home the bacon.

Maybe by "change," Mayor Begich means bringing Alaskans together instead of demonizing your political opposites or trying to bully them into submission. Sen. Stevens isn't as bad on that score as Congressman Don Young, but he does rail against "extreme" environmentalists - a term that apparently means anybody who disagrees with him on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or any other issue.

Mayor Begich presents himself more in the Lisa Murkowski mode. Alaska's junior senator is known for giving opponents a respectful hearing, despite their disagreements.

Still, Sen. Stevens is more bipartisan than many newer-generation U.S. senators. His best friend in the Senate is a Democrat, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.

Assuming Begich and Stevens win their party primaries - a safe bet - the general election will be a hard-fought, multimillion-dollar matchup.

In today's politics, a race like this typically devolves into a war of hot-button sound bites that end up alienating voters. Here's hoping their camps and their proxies and independent supporters keep it clean.

Because the two candidates have plenty of substance to talk about: What is the way out of Iraq? How can we mend the economy and stem the decline of the middle class? Why don't our veterans get better care and support? How can we overhaul an expensive and frustrating health care system? How should we deal with greenhouse gas pollution and climate change?

There is value in a U.S. senator with seniority and clout. There is also value to having a senator from each political party. There is value to decades of Washington, D.C., experience; there is also value to a newcomer's fresh energy and perspective.

Both Mayor Begich and Sen. Stevens have much to offer. Alaska voters should take advantage of the competition and make their voices heard in the campaign.

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