By FRITZ PETTYJOHN
Nick Begich III seeks to represent Alaska in Congress, as his grandfather did from 1970 to 1972. Even though young Nick is a conservative Republican businessman, he is suspect in the eyes of many Republicans because of the politics of his uncles Mark and Tom.
A better place to look for young Nick’s inspiration is to look at the all-too-brief career of the original Nick Begich.
The elder Begich was elected to the State Senate in 1962 at the age of 30. In 1970, he beat Republican Frank Murkowski 55-45 for the right to succeed Republican Rep. Howard Pollock, who had run for governor and lost. At this time, development of the oil field discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 was stalled because of Alaska Native land claims.
As a freshman Congressman in 1971, Begich worked with Alaska Natives and with Sens. Ted Stevens and Mike Gravel on legislation to settle these claims and allow construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. For Alaska this was, and is, the most important law passed since statehood.
Working closely with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana, Begich won passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Thirteen regional Native corporations were established, and given the rights to 40 million acres of Alaska lands. This critical bill passed the House 343-63, and the rush to the Arctic was on. This was the birth of modern Alaska.
Boggs was in line to become Speaker of the House following Carl Albert of Oklahoma. He was so impressed with Begich that he flew to Alaska in October 1972 to help him win reelection. On a flight from Anchorage to Juneau, their Cessna 310 went down in mysterious circumstances and was never found.
House Majority Whip Tip O’Neill took over for Boggs as Majority Leader, and Don Young was elected to replace Begich. In 1977, it was O’Neill, not Boggs, who became House Speaker after Albert.
Who knows how far Begich could have gone if he and Boggs had not been killed? He was destined for leadership in Congress, and was poised to become a great asset to the people of Alaska. If his grandson needs a role model, he will not be looking to his uncles. All he needs to do is walk in the steps of one of the founders of modern Alaska, the original Nick Begich.
The issue of federal lands in Alaska has not been settled to Alaska’s satisfaction to this day. In fact, the federal government still owns 61% of Alaska lands. Why? There’s no satisfactory answer to that question. In his 2016 campaign for President, Sen. Ted Cruz promised to support transferring federal lands to the states. His opponent, Donald Trump, was opposed. His son, Donald Trump Jr., acting on behalf of Safari Club International, convinced him to adopt this position, and in an interview with Field & Stream magazine, he said he didn’t trust the states with the land. The wealthy trophy hunters of Safari Club fear the states, if given title, would give hunting preferences to their residents.
Cruz was able to campaign and win on this issue in northern Nevada, Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.
In the 2024 Republican presidential primaries, this question will resurface, as candidates compete to win delegates in the Mountain West.
As Ted Cruz proved in 2016, it’s a winning issue. As a result, if a Republican other than Donald Trump wins the presidency, Alaska and the other states of the Mountain West will almost surely have an ally in the White House as they seek to reduce federal landholdings in their states. Who better to represent Alaska on this issue than the namesake and grandson of the original Nick Begich?
Fritz Pettyjohn was chairman of Reagan for President Alaska and deputy campaign manager of Murkowski for Senate in 1980. He was elected to the state Senate in 1982, and served in the Legislature until 1990.