In the hyper-partisan world of Washington politics, its not surprising that there are two competing narratives about Mark Begichs four-plus years in office as a first-term senator.
One narrative belongs to Begich and his backers: Hes an Alaska Democrat, a pragmatic, results-oriented centrist with a wide independent streak worthy of the nations last frontier state.
I think Ive been in some ways a thorn in the side of Democrats and the president at times, Begich said earlier this month in his Capitol Hill office which, fitting his self-image as a lunch-bucket lawmaker, has a view of a brick wall an arms reach from the window behind his desk. But I came here not to follow the status quo.
Begich ousted longtime incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in November 2008, winning by fewer than 4,000 votes just eight days after Stevens was convicted on federal corruption charges. The conviction was overturned in April 2009, and Stevens died 16 months later in a plane crash near Dillingham, Alaska.
The second narrative comes from the former Anchorage mayors foes in the decidedly red state: Hes a typical liberal whos supported President Barack Obamas big-government agenda and has done the bidding of Senate Democratic leaders.
I dont really want to get in a tit-for-tat with Mark on a bunch of issues, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, whos weighing a run against Begich next year, said last month. But I dont believe his core votes in the Senate reflect the electorate who put him in it.
Theres evidence to support both narratives.
Begich, 50, is a strong Second Amendment advocate who breaks with most Democrats in opposing a renewal of the assault-weapons ban that lapsed in 2004. Instead, he and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced legislation March 6 to prevent mentally ill people from getting guns.
Begich said hes owned a handgun since he was 16, though he admits he doesnt hunt and is only a marginal marksman. Good enough, he said. You rob my house, you wont make it out.
In another breach of party protocol, Begich promotes expanded oil and natural gas drilling on federal lands, starting with opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.
Begich also has strayed from Democratic dogma in voting multiple times against ending or reducing federal tax subsidies to oil and gas companies, helping to convince Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to drop such a move from the Nevadans budget proposal, and in voting for development of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas.
And in a throwback to how things used to work routinely in Congress but now rarely do, Begich has crossed the aisle to partner with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski on a slew of Alaska-centric issues, often joining forces with Rep. Don Young, also a Republican and Alaskas sole House representative.
But then there is the second narrative.
In this version of Begichs senatorial tenure, hes backed Obamas most important initiatives, led by the $840 billion economic stimulus package in 2009 and the landmark mandatory health insurance law the next year.
Republicans say those two measures increased the deficit and added to the governments already record $16.7 trillion debt, contradicting Begichs claim that he is a fiscal moderate who vets federal spending closely and is committed to cutting the debt.