Begich hopes to follow in father's steps

Tragic early death of Nick Begich may have altered Alaska politics for years

Posted: Sunday, November 02, 2008

Alaska's legendary Democratic congressman Nick Begich won election victories over two of the three most prominent Republicans who have represented Alaska since statehood.

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Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News

Now his son, Mark Begich, is trying to unseat the third, arguably the most important Alaska politician ever.

Democrat Mark Begich is locked in a tight race with Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who has represented Alaska since 1968 and is the longest serving Republican ever in the U.S. Senate.

He was in Juneau on Friday for a rally at the Hangar ballroom. Afterwards he met with the Empire and talked about living up to the responsibility of being Nick Begich's son.

At a downtown restaurant, the mayor of the state's largest city is still approached by strangers saying "I knew your father."

Nick Begich was known as a tireless worker, for his ability to connect with citizens, and a tenacious advocate for them.

"If I can just live up to half of it, I'll be happy," Mark Begich said.

Despite the "Begich" name, the younger Begich is adamant that he has to win the respect his father had.

"It is not granted to you, you have to earn it," he said.

Nick Begich was running for re-election three weeks before the 1972 general election, and things were going remarkably well. He had won re-election in the Democratic primary handily, and was thought to be leading Republican challenger Don Young, a Fort Yukon school teacher and riverboat captain.

Begich also had landed a major coup for a freshman in Congress: House Majority Leader Hale Boggs had come to Alaska to campaign for him.

Boggs' interest in the faraway state indicated that Begich was seen as an up and comer on the national scene.

The Anchorage Daily News was excited to have the House Majority Leader in Alaska and covered his visit in detail.

"The silver-haired Congressman appeared accustomed to well-tailored dark suits on his well-fed frame; in short, the picture of a long-term, unopposed southern politician: Flowery and forceful," the paper's Allan Frank reported.

Boggs was the kind of principled politician Begich sought out, the paper said.

To the consternation of some of his Louisiana constituents, the Southern Democrat voted for the 1964 civil rights act and in Anchorage stood up to denounce President Richard Nixon, who was on his way to a landslide electoral victory in Alaska and elsewhere.

The paper quoted an unnamed diner at a fundraising dinner who was mightily impressed with Boggs.

"He's a powerful dude, you can just feel it," the diner said.

And Boggs also praised Begich, boosting his stature among his Alaska constituents.

The Daily News said Begich was riding high that night.

"Begich, savoring the nearness of the majority leader, the crowd and his heavy primary victory, clearly had one of his finest nights," Frank wrote.

Next up for Begich and Boggs was a fundraiser in Juneau, scheduled for the Baranof hotel the following evening.

Begich, Boggs and an aide left Anchorage in a Cessna 310 piloted by Fairbanks pilot Don Jonz on Oct. 16, 1972.

But the plane never arrived in Juneau, and a massive air, land and sea search failed to turn up any sign of the plane. The search was reportedly the largest ever conducted in the United States at the time.

A presidential aircraft provided by Nixon flew Boggs' wife, Lindy, to Alaska to be closer to the search. Boggs' daughter, Cokie Roberts, later to become a National Public Radio commentator, joined her.

The Begich-Boggs flight was last heard from just after leaving Anchorage when Jonz requested a weather report for Sitka. Then, as now, it was an alternate airport when Juneau was socked in.

The bad weather was up near Portage Glacier, however. Visibility was good in Juneau at the time the plane was to have arrived.

Jonz later was determined to have had somewhat of a checkered history as a pilot, including having his air transport license suspended after landing an overloaded plane on a Florida expressway.

And the Air Force investigation into the missing plane raised questions about whether Jonz had been carrying required survival gear and an emergency locator.

Air Force Major Henry Stocker said at the time that while Jonz had told the FAA that he had emergency gear and an emergency locator on board, they later determined that he did not have survival gear, raising questions about whether he was carrying the radio beacon as well.

Employees at Jonz's airline reported also that they'd found his emergency locator sitting on his desk after he disappeared. Stocker said he might have obtained another, though.

Alaska law began requiring the emergency locators to be carried in Sept. 1 of that year. Later, the disappearance of the Begich and Boggs flight contributed to a nationwide requirement for the beacons.

Private and military search aircraft spent thousands of hours in the air scouring the route.

Daily News reporter Howard Weaver even covered the search from the air, aboard a Civil Air Patrol aircraft. An SR-71 spy plane flew over the area taking pictures which were later analyzed on the ground.

A few tantalizing leads failed to pan out, including mysterious radio transmissions and a loud boom heard from an Admiralty Island logging camp.

The search area covered 45,000 square miles and extended as far south as Wrangell, but turned up nothing by election day.

As the election neared with the Democratic candidate missing, the House's Republican Minority Leader, Gerald Ford, suggested voting for Young so Alaska would be represented in Washington, D.C.

Democratic Gov. Bill Egan accused Ford of trying to "pressure" the people of Alaska to pick a Republican.

The missing Begich defeated Young, but in a special election after Begich was declared dead Young narrowly defeated Alaska Democratic Party Chairman Emil Notti. Notti currently serves in Gov. Sarah Palin's cabinet as commissioner of the Department of Community and Economic Development.

Begich had first won office by defeating Frank Murkowski, a Ketchikan banker who would later go on to be a U.S. senator and Alaska governor.

After a Begich rally in Juneau Friday, local resident Conrad Villegas said he originally wanted Mark Begich to run for the House seat his father once held.

"A lot of us first thought, for nostalgic reasons, how cool it would be if he'd run for Congress, but he can do so much more for Alaska in the Senate," he said.

Villegas presented Mark Begich with some family mementos from the 1960s, when Nick Begich stayed in the Ketchikan home of his father-in-law while running for office.

Juneau's Harvey Marvin co-chaired Nick Begich's re-election committee in 1972 in Sitka because of his strong work on native issues.

"He was a person I really admired," he said.

Marvin dealt with Nick Begich in the state Legislature, and as a member of the Tlingit-Haida Executive Council kept in touch in Washington, D.C.

Marvin is now supporting Mark Begich, but not because of his name.

"I've known Mark for a while now, and I think Mark makes his own message, event though he has a good family history of how government works," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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