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Alaska's Begich takes his place in Senate, replacing Stevens

WASHINGTON -- Replacing old with young and Republican with Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich ushered in a new era for Alaska politics Tuesday as he was sworn into the U.S. Senate seat held for 40 years by Sen. Ted Stevens.

"I'm still pinching myself," said Begich's mother, Pegge Begich, who lost her first husband, U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, when his plane disappeared in Alaska in 1972 while he was campaigning for re-election to Congress. "What a proud moment for a mother. I was proud when Nick was sworn in, but to see one of your children to accomplish this incredible goal ..."

Begich, 46, took office Tuesday with six fellow Democrats and two Republican senators. After the swearing-in ceremony that marked the opening of the 111th Congress, Begich left the Senate chambers dazed and happy, surrounded by friends, family, supporters and well-wishers.

"It was amazing," he said, as he rode the Capitol subway to his celebratory reception. "It was an amazing feeling to be in that room."

Yet even as he ushered in a new era, Begich paid homage to his own past. He was sworn in with the same Bible his father used during his 1971 swearing-in as Alaska's third congressman -- and one that Begich himself has used while being sworn in as mayor of Anchorage.

In November, Begich defeated 85-year-old Stevens, who held the seat for 40 years before he was convicted this fall in federal court in Washington, D.C., on seven counts of filing false financial disclosure forms.

Begich's win over Stevens in the Nov. 4 election returned the first Democrat to Alaska's congressional delegation since 1980. Pleased with the upset, Senate Democratic leaders awarded Begich two plum committee assignments Tuesday: seats on Commerce and Armed Services.

Tuesday's ceremony was bittersweet for many Alaskans, including Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was introduced to the Senate by Stevens at her own swearing-in -- and who also supported Stevens in his unsuccessful campaign this fall against Begich.

Tuesday, Murkowski put aside those differences to introduce her fellow Alaskan to the Senate, escorting Begich into the chamber to take his oath of office. She said she had offered essentially the same advice Stevens gave her when she came to the Senate: make your own path.

"This is something where you really kind of find your own way, and Mark will find his way," Murkowski said.

Close friends, along with Begich's wife, Deborah Bonito, and their son, Jacob, watched his swearing-in ceremony from the Senate observation gallery, then traveled with Begich in the subway system connecting the Capitol to the Senate office buildings. Throngs of Begiches crowded the subway cars along with throngs of another political family, the Udalls -- they watched cousins Mark of Colorado and Tom of New Mexico sworn in as senators, too.

"It was an emotional experience, after Mark and his family worked so hard," said Carol Stolpe, who got to know Begich when she was a school board member and he was on the Anchorage Assembly. "We have high hopes for his work in the Senate."

Begich's reception, which was open to the public, attracted a cross section of people with Alaska connections, including Washington lobbyists with strong ties to Stevens: Steve Silver, Mitch Rose and Jack Ferguson.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who was so close to Stevens that they called each other "brother," also stopped in to offer his congratulations to the newest senator from Alaska. Begich said that Inouye told him he had a special place in his heart for Alaska and would do whatever he could for the state -- a meaningful pledge now that Inouye heads the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Stevens' old stomping grounds.

But perhaps the most unusual attendees were Bob and Jeanne Penney, who are close to Stevens and who were instrumental in raising money for his campaigns and those of other Republicans. Jeanne Penney, a close friend of Stevens' wife, Catherine, testified as a witness for Stevens during his trial.

Bob Penney said he and his wife have attended the swearing-in ceremonies of every U.S. senator from Alaska in the state's history -- except that of one of the first, Sen. Ernest Gruening. Penney said he always tries to show up for the ceremonies, because as someone who believes strongly in the 49th state, he said he understands that Washington is "so important to all of Alaska."

"You can't say too much good about Sen. Stevens," he said. "At the same time, I think we'll be able to say a lot of good about Mark in the future."

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