WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was the most important vote of his fledgling Senate career, maybe one that would determine his future, and he knew it. It was fraught with political danger, a no-win vote that would offend his opponents and even many of his supporters, and certain to be used against him.
That’s why freshman Alaska Democrat Mark Begich agonized for weeks over Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination before deciding at the last minute to support the New York federal appeals court judge, even though he was troubled by her views on two issues of paramount importance to Alaskans: gun control and private property rights.
Begich announced his decision only an hour before the Senate confirmed Sotomayor last week by a 68-31 vote. Minutes later, the 47-year-old former Anchorage mayor offered a rare insight into how members of Congress are often torn between representing their constituents and obeying their conscience while explaining how he arrived at his wrenching decision.
Didn’t want to rush irreversible vote
“Once you make this vote for a Supreme Court justice, that’s it,” Begich told me and Walter Alarkon, a colleague from The Hill. “There’s no going back and saying, ‘Maybe I want to change that vote.’ So you want to take the time, and the only people who rush you are people who want to know how you’ll vote before you vote.
“Well, I tell them I’ll be voting, and that’s how you’ll find out how I’ll vote on this issue, and it gave me time to talk to more people, gave me time to review her testimony, and to meet with her for almost an hour, which was a pretty significant time for a non-member of the Judiciary Committee.”
He added, “I also wanted to hear and see how she was responding, especially in those direct confrontations [with Judiciary Committee Republicans] because that can tell you a lot about the temperament of someone …”
Begich — the son of Eveleth, Minn., native Nick Begich, the Alaska congressman who disappeared in a 1972 plane crash in Alaska with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, D-La. — said he is confident that Sotomayor, who was sworn in as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice on Saturday, “will be more moderate that the judge she’s replacing. And I think she will surprise people.”
But he acknowledged that many Alaskans won’t like his decision, which put him at odds with Alaska’s senior Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, who said she was concerned with Sotomayor’s views on Second Amendment issues and private property rights. She voted against her, even though she was “thoroughly impressed with her intellect and resolve.”
Begich is a centrist Democrat who received an ‘A’ rating from the National Rifle Association when he ran against scandal-scarred, seven-term Republican Sen. Ted Stevens last year to become the first Democratic senator from Alaska in 28 years. He clearly was concerned about how Alaskans would view his vote — a concern borne out by some of his constituents’ comments, such as this one posted on The Hill’s website from someone in Sitka, Alaska, who wrote: “Mark, you may not be up for reelection for five years, but we will not forget how you voted on Sotomayor.”)
In a statement issued after his vote, Begich said he told Sotomayor, “Alaskans believe especially strongly in the Second Amendment and our right to bear arms, that we cherish our personal privacy and private rights and that we strive for a careful balance between protecting our state’s unmatched beauty and the need to develop our natural resources. Judge Sotomayor told me that she understands and appreciates these strongly-held Alaskan and American values.”
Ready for Alaskans’ two views
When I asked how his vote will play in Alaska, Begich said, “I think there’ll be two views. One view will be: Hopefully, he did what he thought was right, based on information. The other side will say: ‘Well, geez, he wasn’t supportive of the NRA,’ and I would argue that’s why I disagree with them. The NRA’s whole point on one of the cases [in which Sotomayor upheld a New York state ban on nunchucks, the Korean martial arts sticks], she didn’t talk about states’ rights.”
Citing a 2008 case in which the Supreme Court struck down Washington, D.C.’s 32-year-old ban on handguns while holding that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a handgun for personal use, Begich said, “In the Heller case, which the NRA supports and I support, the court didn’t talk about states’ rights either.”
In each case, Begich said, Sotomayor and the high court “went on precedent and took a restrictive view of the law, not a ‘let’s expand and legislate,’ and that to me was important. I don’t want a judge who’s going to get on the bench and start advocating or being active in legislation.”
He added, “What you’re trying to gauge is: Is this person a thinker, does she work through the process, does she have a temperment that’s not emotional, or as I call it, a peak-and-valley kind of view? Does she rationalize and lay the information out and does she absorb hostile questions?”
Begich, who does not have a law degree and, in fact, is the only member of the Senate without a college degree, said he studied the minutes of Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing and consulted with other moderate Democrats he’s close to, including Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Jim Webb of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana.
But Begich said he didn’t make up his mind until hearing floor speeches of two of the nine Republicans who voted for Sotomayor, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kit Bond of Missouri.
“There were a lot of politics for a lot of members on this issue,” he said. “I think a couple of members like Lindsey Graham and Kit Bond made some very strong statements about why they were voting the way they were, and that’s what I was listening to,” especially Graham, who was strongly supported by the NRA.
“On an issue like this, you can’t let the politics determine the outcome, and you can’t let one side or the other muscle you, based on calls,” he said. “You can point to every single president who thought they appointed someone who thought they were going to be a certain way, and they weren’t.
“I think it was important not to rush a decision. Some people knew instinctively where they were going to go. “But I’m a freshman — I want to take my time.”