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Alaska’s Strained Love Affair With Stevens

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/stevens.jpgSen. Ted Stevens (wdcpix)

Who would vote for a convicted felon to serve in the U.S. Senate?

Right now, about 42 percent of Alaskans say they would.

The day after a Washington jury found the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, Ted Stevens, guilty of failing to disclose $250,000 in gifts from an oil services firm, Rasmussen conducted a poll in his home state of Alaska. It showed that Stevens’ Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, had pulled ahead by eight percentage points. Before the verdict, the race had been a statistical tie.

Most people who are following the race believe Begich will eventually win by a greater margin.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Nevertheless, thousands of Alaskans could line up Tuesday to cast their vote for a man who betrayed the public trust by using his powerful position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to accept gifts and perks from Veco and its chief executive, Bill Allen. Among the gifts that Stevens was convicted of accepting were renovations that doubled the size of his home in Girdwood, Alaska, a state-of-the-art Viking grill, furniture and a massage chair.

In Alaska, Stevens and his handiwork have a variety of pet names. He is known as “Uncle Ted,” and the billions of dollars in federal money he has brought to the state is called “Stevens money.”

To truly understand Stevens’ continuing attraction in Alaska despite his conviction on seven counts of lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal the gifts, you need to look at how the senator embodies the Western spirit of Alaska. It is a spirit that uneasily accommodates two conflicting views of government. On the one hand, Steven represents a state where people go to escape their past and find their fortune, free of the intrusions of a meddling government. Their destination, on the other hand, is a young, remote state heavily dependent on federal money for its infrastructure and other projects.

Stevens is thus part wild west and part inside the Beltway, an accommodation that has brought Alaska $3 billion in earmarks in the last four years alone — and earned him a special place in voters’ hearts.

“The reality of the situation is that there is a combination of that — those big projects — but it’s also genuinely his commitment to help the Congress understand that Alaska is unique and what its needs are,” said Stephen Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. “He is highly respected by all the people he has helped in Alaska.”

Haycox explained that the state’s single-minded pursuit of federal money stems from its anxiety over job security because Alaska’s “extraordinarily narrow economy” is heavily dependent on oil production in Prudhoe Bay.

“Alaska is an economic colony,” Haycox said. “The only thing from which to construct an economy is development of natural resources.”

The state’s top revenue source is taxes on oil production, which accounted for 41 percent of the 2007 budget, or $4.5 billion.

The federal government is the second largest revenue source, amounting to $2 billion, or 28 percent of total revenues.

Remaining revenues come from taxes on such goods as alcohol, cigarettes and fuel. Alaskans do not pay income taxes.

A Stevens loss Tuesday would be quickly felt by the state. Don Mitchell, the author of a Stevens biography, recently told Newsweek magazine that Alaska could turn into a “wasteland” within 24 months if Stevens isn’t reelected.

In an interview with The Washington Independent, Mitchell cited the billions of federal dollars that Stevens has brought to the state to pay for projects helping Native Alaskan populations, for the construction of infrastructure and even for a cost-of-living bonus for federal employees because living expenses in Alaska are higher than in most other states.

“No one of these things, in and of itself, brings on the end of the world as any of us knows it,” said Mitchell. “But this has been cumulative for 30 years. It could go a lot quicker than people think.”

Since Stevens’ indictment was made public in August, polls have showed some nervousness among voters about abandoning their federal delegation all at once. Support for Stevens initially dropped, but it has rallied over the past few weeks.

By contrast, support for the state’s lone congressman, Don Young, who has his own legal troubles, has plummeted. Young has spent about $1 million in legal fees in the past year, according to his latest House financial disclosure forms. The FBI is investigating his ties to Veco as well.

“As we moved into this political season, there was kind of a subconscious feeling going on that people were considering seniority,” said prominent Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore.

Leaders of the Alaska GOP, including fellow Sen. Lisa Murkowski, have urged Stevens to stay in the race despite calls from many Republicans, including Sen. John McCain and his running-mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for him to bow out.

The state Republican Party cannot put a new candidate on the ballot in time for Tuesday’s election. So if Stevens wins and then resigns from the Senate, the state would hold a special election to fill the vacancy.

Haycox said that Alaskans who still support Stevens, despite his conviction, say they are comfortable with him because the charges were insignificant. “Most people regard the charges as fairly technical,” Haycox said. “They don’t think this is an individual who set out to lie, who deliberately set out to obscure the truth and deliberately set out to use his position to see what he could get.”

In September, Claude Morris, a long-time neighbor of Stevens in Girdwood, told me that he would support the senator “no matter what.”

When I asked him by phone Wednesday if he has changed his mind, Morris said the verdict led him to “still feel the same way.”

“Mostly it is a fabricated deal from the Democrats, and I don’t have much faith in our judicial system anymore,” Morris said from his home. “This should have been done up here, where everybody was and all the actors in the scenario were. They kept it in Washington because they knew they could get him convicted down there.”

Morris, 82, a retired oil field project manager and gunsmith, says he has seen the renovations on Stevens’ house. He said it was a “haphazard” job worked on sporadically. As such, he said it was understandable that Stevens didn’t know that he hadn’t paid all the bills for the job.

Less devoted Stevens fans might be wavering. But no one can say for sure until after Tuesday.

“I don’t think it will be close in the end,” Moore said. “But as you know, weirder things have happened in Alaska.”

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