News that former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, died in an August 9 plane crash in southwest Alaska should prove shocking for both his home state and the Washington, D.C. establishment that has known the power broker since he arrived in the Senate in 1968.
Stevens survived a plane crash in 1978 at Anchorage International Airport, though his wife, Ann, was killed.
At the end of his congressional tenure, no other senator filled so central a place in his state's public and economic life as Stevens; quite possibly no other senator ever has. "They sent me here," Stevens said in one impassioned debate, "to stand up for the state of Alaska." He was the longest-serving Republican senator in the United States. He was President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and thus third in line for the presidency, from 2003 to 2007. He was chairman of the Appropriations Committee for 6 1/2 years (1997-2001, 2003-2005), and chairman of the Commerce Committee for two years (2005-2007); he chaired or served as ranking member on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for more than 20 years. For a quarter century, Stevens was the leading public policymaker for and about Alaska. "We ask for special consideration," Stevens is not too shy to say, "because no one else is that far away, no one else has the problems that we have or the potential that we have, and no one else deals with the federal government day in and day out the way we do." Probably more than any other senator, Stevens shaped the public institutions and private economy of his state.
Stevens grew up in Indiana and California in very modest surroundings, served in World War II flying C-46s and C-47s, graduated from UCLA and Harvard Law, then moved to Alaska in 1950, driving up the Alaska Highway with his new bride. He was U.S. attorney in Fairbanks and worked in the Interior Department in Washington. In 1962, he ran for the Senate and lost to Democrat Ernest Gruening by a 58%-42% margin. He then served in the legislature in Juneau and was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Governor Walter Hickel in December 1968, at 45. He quickly gained a seat on Appropriations and worked on Alaska issues of all description. He has not been entirely successful. He could not stop the Alaska Lands Act in 1980 and has failed repeatedly to win approval of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, often by agonizingly close margins. But he played a major role on the Native Claims Act in 1971 and got the oil pipeline through by one vote in 1973. In 1995, he and Frank Murkowski finally secured the repeal of the 1977 law forbidding exports of Alaskan oil, thus opening up the obvious East Asian markets.
On non-Alaska issues, Stevens had a moderate voting record. On the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, he worked for years with Democrat Daniel Inouye -- another decorated World War II veteran who has represented an offshore state since the 1960s -- to support robust defense spending and had been a staunch advocate of missile defense. On taking over the chairmanship of the Commerce Committee in 2005 (replacing John McCain, who has often attacked Stevens's Alaska projects as pork barrel spending), Stevens reshuffled the subcommittees to give him control over telecommunications. In June 2006 he got the committee to approve 15-7 a revision of the 1996 telecommunications law removing barriers to phone companies providing video services, in competition with cable companies; rejected by an 11-11 tie vote was a "net neutrality" provision which would have barred price discrimination by telephone and cable companies. His bill also stabilized the $7 billion Universal Service Fund which provides money for underserved communities, of which Alaska has many. Public radio has a larger audience in Alaska than in any other state -- commercial radio is unprofitable in the Bush -- and Stevens was a strong supporter of public radio and television. For most of 2006 he struggled to get the 60 votes required to pass the bill on the floor over a filibuster, but was not able to do so. In 2007, as he turned over the chair to Inouye, it appeared that the telephone companies were less eager for a new bill because they feared Democrats would attach a net neutrality provision.
Stevens also led the Commerce Committee in revising the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens fisheries act, last updated in 1996. Changes were needed because most fish stocks have been depleted; Alaska, with strict state regulation, has done a better job of preserving its salmon stocks. His bill passed the Senate in June 2006, with provisions penalizing fisheries which exceed catch limits by lowering limits for the next year. The House Resources Committee produced a weaker bill; in December Stevens made concessions, dropping the penalties and instead required the eight regional fishery councils to develop and implement plans to end overfishing within two years. It had a 10-year time limit for permits and guidelines for cap-and-trade quotas. It passed in the closing days of the 109th Congress. Stevens responded to the March 2006 North Slope oil spill caused by a corroded pipeline with a bill, passed in December, to subject low-stress pipelines to the same standards and regulations as other hazardous-liquid pipelines. Stevens did not back all proposals for development in Alaska. In 2006 he opposed the proposed Pebble gold, copper and molybdenum mine in southwest Alaska because of its effect on commercial, sport and subsistence salmon fishing; on this he agreed with former Governor Tony Knowles and the Anchorage Daily News.
For years Stevens was known for -- and seemed to want to be known for -- his terrible temper. When he succeeded Mark Hatfield as Appropriations Committee chairman in 1997, he told his colleagues, "Senator Hatfield had the patience of Job and the disposition of a saint. I don't. The watch has changed. I'm a mean, miserable SOB." Some of this, at least, was an act: Stevens got along with appropriators of all parties, at least if they did their homework and respected his prerogatives. He did not take kindly to those who voted against Alaska's interests for what he considered frivolous or bogus reasons. In the debate over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in March 2003, he said, "I have never broken a commitment in my life. I make this commitment: People who vote against this today are voting against me, and I will not forget it." But that did not necessarily mean direct retaliation; as Stevens put it on another occasion, "There are those people I am not going to go out of my way to help."
He showed his temper as he tried to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Stevens argued that he had a commitment when the Alaska Lands Act was passed in 1980 that Congress would allow drilling after a study. But the senators who made the commitment, Henry Jackson and Paul Tsongas, are long gone. Congress seemed on the point of allowing drilling in 1989, but support evaporated when the Exxon Valdez went aground and produced a giant oil spill. In 2005 Stevens got ANWR drilling into the budget resolution, so that it could pass the Senate with less than 60 votes. But the House wouldn't go along; liberal Republicans refused to support the budget resolution with ANWR drilling, and pro-drilling Democrats would not support the Republicans' budget resolution. In December 2005 Stevens put ANWR drilling into the defense appropriation. But his longtime Appropriations colleague Robert Byrd raised the point of order barring unrelated provisions from final bills. Stevens, noting that that point of order is seldom enforced, was furious. "This has been the saddest day of my life," he said. "It's a day I don't want to remember." With Democrats in control, Stevens conceded that ANWR drilling was going nowhere soon.
At some point, probably in the 1990s, Alaskans began referring matter-of-factly to funding for federal projects as "Stevens money." He argued that Alaska had special needs and special handicaps and therefore deserved special treatment. "Congress has not awakened to the fact that we've got a state with one-fifth the land in this country. My mission is to try to make Congress understand that the promise of statehood is that we should have the ability to establish a workable private-enterprise economy in the areas of Alaska that want it. And that's basically 90% of the state." His prowess was legendary. In 1998, Stevens sought a land trade for a seven-mile road through the Izembeck National Wildlife Refuge -- which the Clinton Interior Department wanted to declare off-limits -- so that the tiny Aleutian village of King Cove would have access to medical facilities. The administration offered three alternatives; Stevens took all three: $37.7 million for an airport road, medical clinic and doctor and nurse. In 1998, he set up the Denali Commission (Denali is the Native name of Mount McKinley), which funds infrastructure projects -- water and sewer, electricity -- in central Alaska, to the tune of $38 million in 2001, $45 million in 2002 and $48 million in 2003. When a Stevens aide showed Stevens an Anchorage Daily News article about a volunteer group that had raised $6,000 to promote a string of public-use huts linked by hiking trails, he thought it was a good idea and, without consulting the group, put in $500,000 for a backcountry hut network at Snow River near Seward. "That's crazy!" exulted the group's vice president. "There's, like, tears in my eyes." It could be argued that Stevens was less a legislator than he was a philanthropist in the mode of John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, although of course he was not spending his own money.
The list of Alaska projects Stevens funded was long: $17 million for anti-alcohol funding, $5.5 million to the National Energy Technology Laboratory at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, $35 million for Denali Commission rural health clinics, $10 million for the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board (created in a 2002 appropriation), $16.8 million for sea lion research at the Alaska SeaLife Center (a pollock fishery was closed because of a decline in number of sea lions), $150,000 for a botanical garden in Anchorage, $900,000 for an aquarium in Ketchikan and $525,000 to upgrade a quarry in Nome, $400,000 for an Anchorage homeless shelter, $750,000 for quarry upgrades for the Bering Straits Native corporation, $7.5 million for Army housing in Alaska, $450,000 for research on salmon as baby food. He inserted into appropriations provisions limiting judicial review of timber sales in the Tongass National Forest, 200 seasonal visas for Japanese technicians to evaluate salmon eggs (the Japanese will only buy them if they are Japanese-inspected and without those sales some fisheries would be unprofitable). Even Stevens's critics conceded that he did not shovel money into projects willy-nilly. He shifted money around if he thought it was not well spent and, past the age of 80, he was still prepared to defend every single project on the merits. Proposals to require identification of the proposers of earmarks seemed unlikely to phase Stevens; he was happy to take credit for his work. And he became angry when Alaska projects were challenged. In October 2005, when Senator Tom Coburn moved to defund the Ketchikan-Gravina bridge -- a "bridge to nowhere" to its critics -- and use the money to rebuild the I-10 bridge in New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Stevens responded stormily. "I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state, to take money from our state, I'll resign from this body. This is not the Senate I came to. This is not the Senate I've devoted 37 years to, if one senator can decide he'll take all the money from one state to solve a problem of another." It was effective: Coburn's amendment was rejected 82-15.
After the framing of the Native Claims Act -- perhaps the most creative and successful legislation concerning American aboriginal peoples -- Stevens continued to work tirelessly to help Alaska Natives, who vote heavily Democratic in most elections. They voted overwhelmingly for Stevens in later elections, but he could have won without their support easily. He skillfully elicited consensus with Native leaders when opinion was divided, getting more health and sanitation aid to Bush villages and funding for health research on fetal alcohol syndrome and cancers common among Natives, and to gain preference in federal contracting for Native corporations. At the same time, Stevens was not uncritical of Native leaders. In October 2002, he urged the Alaska Federation of Natives not to funnel its requests for federal money through the 229 individual village-based tribes granted official status by the Clinton administration, but to consolidate federal requests so that "the very, very poor communities that don't have that ability to hire consultants, to hire grantsmen, people to write applications," get assistance. In a January 2004 appropriation, he set up a commission to draw up a new legal and governmental system for rural Alaska and an economic development commission funded through the Denali Commission to "promote private sector investment to reduce poverty in economically distressed rural villages." He evidently wanted to prevent the emergence of a separate Native legal system. As he said on the Alaska Public Radio Network, "The road they're on now is the road to the destruction of statehood, because the Native population is increasing at a much greater rate than the non-Native population. I don't know if you realize that. And they want to have total jurisdiction over anything that happens in a village without regard to state law and without regard to federal law."
Stevens played a crucial role in the 1970s in getting the oil pipeline approved. More recently he tried to advance proposals for a natural gas pipeline. For years oil drillers in Prudhoe Bay have been pumping natural gas back into the ground; there are an estimated 30 trillion cubic feet there and another 70 trillion cubic feet elsewhere on the North Slope -- all undeliverable to customers without a pipeline. Pipeline provisions had been included in the 2001 and 2003 energy bills -- a loan guarantee of 80% of construction costs, a price floor for the producers, accelerated depreciation, limited judicial review -- but the energy bill remained stalled for other reasons. In October 2004 Stevens decided to insert the pipeline provisions, except for the price floor, into the must-pass military construction appropriation; he also got accelerated depreciation into the corporate tax bill. The rider specified a route through central Alaska, not directly east into Canada, and provided for in-state use of gas. Then-Governor Frank Murkowski quickly solicited contracts from two consortiums, one being the three North Slope oil companies, the other a pipeline company with Native corporation participation; Stevens endorsed Murkowski's proposal that the state have an equity share. There are still other barriers to overcome -- federal and Canadian regulatory approval, private financing -- but the gas pipeline, for the first time, seems likely to be built. And in 2004 he secured approval of loan guarantees for a natural gas pipeline.
Stevens's work did not go unappreciated. In January 2000, he was named Alaskan of the Century. In July 2000, Anchorage Airport was named the Ted Stevens International Airport and the Challenger Center in Kenai became the Ted and Catherine Stevens Center for Space Science Technology. Stevens was criticized in a December 2003 Los Angeles Times story for investing in local Alaskan properties with his brother-in-law and for providing help to co-investors and a tenant (one of the Native corporations) in buildings he co-owned. Stevens insisted he was a "passive investor" and since sold the interests and placed the proceeds in a blind trust. In 2006 his son, state Senator Ben Stevens, was criticized for some of his business dealings and his office was searched by the FBI.
Stevens was reelected easily. In the August 1996 Republican primary a banker and former legislator spent $1.3 million of his own money and charged that Stevens was insufficiently conservative. Stevens won 59%-27%. His Democratic opponent that year blamed Stevens for her husband's failure to pass the Alaska bar on 22 separate tries; Stevens won 77%-13%. In November 2002 his Democratic opponent, a denizen of the hip town of Homer, charged that Stevens was part of a government conspiracy to keep him under constant surveillance. Stevens was reelected 78%-11%, carrying all but three precincts. He campaigned actively for his 22-year colleague Frank Murkowski in the 2002 governor race and for Murkowski's daughter Lisa Murkowski in the 2004 Senate race. Eight days after the 2006 election he announced that he would run for reelection in 2008, at 85. "While the recent election did not go my party's way, I come out of the campaign more determined than ever to fight for Alaska's interests in Washington, D.C.," he said.
Stevens got into trouble after news surfaced of an FBI corruption investigation in Alaska that produced guilty pleas from two close associates of Stevens, a July 2007 raid on the senator's home in Girdwood and 2006 raids on the offices of six Alaska state legislators, including his son, Ben. In May 2007, VECO Corp. executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith pleaded guilty to bribing four government officials, including an unnamed "State Senator B" who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from VECO, an Alaska-based oil-support contracting firm, for unspecified consulting work. Allen had donated over $50,000 to Ted Stevens' reelection campaigns since 2000 and had overseen the remodeling of the senator's Girdwood home. According to newspaper reports, bills for the construction were sent to Allen and VECO.
Days after Allen's guilty plea, Ted Stevens withdrew his support for an oft-maligned marketing program that had funneled over $100 million to select Alaska companies. In the subsequent month, the DSCC stepped up its candidate recruitment efforts, hoping to convince Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich or former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz to run. A host of other Democrats and Republicans also were said to be considering running. In June, Stevens candidly acknowledged his worries that the FBI probe would hurt him in 2008. "If this is still hanging around a year from November, it could cause me some trouble," he told the Associated Press.
Stevens was indicted on July 29, 2008, and the news set off shockwaves in Alaska. Stevens proclaimed his innocence, but polls showed him running slightly behind or no better than even with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the likely Democratic nominee. In the August Democratic primary, Begich got 84% of the vote against four opponents. In the GOP primary, Stevens beat David Cuddy, a businessman who had run against him 12 years before, 64%-27%. Stevens got slightly more votes than Begich, but could hardly count on those who had voted against him in the primary. Some national Republicans expressed hope that Stevens would resign and let Alaska Republicans pick a new, untarnished candidate. But Stevens refused to quit even though he spent much of the fall campaign season on trial in a Washington D.C. courtroom.
On October 27, 2008, Stevens was convicted on all seven counts. "I am innocent," he declared. "This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial. I ask that Alaskans and my Senate colleagues stand with me as I pursue my rights. I remain a candidate for the United States Senate." It seemed too much to ask. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called on Stevens to resign, and the Senate Ethics Committee geared up to open its own probe. He may have helped his chances with a two-minute television ad just before the election recounting what he had done for Alaska for 40 years. Last-minute polls showed a dead heat.
For much of Election Night on Nov. 3, returns put Stevens ahead of Begich 48%-46%, but the race was too close to call even into the next morning. Presidential candidate Barack Obama's superb organization in Alaska had ensured that many Democrats cast early votes or absentee votes, and as they were counted, Begich gained ground. By Nov. 12, Begich was ahead, and on Nov. 18, he led by more than the number of votes left to count. He became the first Democratic senator elected in Alaska since Mike Gravel was reelected in 1974.
In April 2009, the Justice Department dismissed Stevens' conviction after it was revealed that prosecutors had failed to turn over key documents to his defense lawyers. The Alaska GOP and then-Gov. Sarah Palin called for a special election in light of the new information. Begich responded with a statement saying, "I got into the Senate race long before Sen. Stevens' legal troubles began because Alaskans were looking for a change and a senator as independent as Alaska." No special election was held.