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Can Stevens Survive?

Stevens.jpg
Stevens.jpg

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) (WDCpix)

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was already facing a tough re-election campaign. And that was before he was indicted on seven counts of corruption-related charges.

The question now is: will he survive?

History is divided on whether the longest-serving Republican in the Senate can eke out a win. While many politicians have pulled off miraculous wins after ugly scandals, indictments are usually a tipping point for members of Congress.

Princeton history professor Julian E. Zelizer, who has written several books about Congress, notes that the electorate can often forgive a member of Congress for embarrassing incidents. Zelizer pointed to the case of Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), who was caught with a stripper near the Tidal Basin just one month before the 1974 mid-term elections. Even after news broke that the young woman, Fanne Foxe, leapt from Mill’s car into the famed basin when police approached, Mills held on to his seat — with 60 percent of the vote.

Congress_5274.jpg
Congress_5274.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

But by and large, Zelizer explained, members of Congress who are indicted face a much tougher electorate.

“If you think of the list,” Zelizer said. “At least since the 80s, both in the House or the Senate, [indicted members] either leave of their own volition or someone else tells them to do it. It’s very hard to survive.”

The few indicted politicians that have won in such cases tend to portray themselves as outsiders persecuted by the establishment. Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), for example, pulled off a win despite corruption charges when he painted himself as a victim of racism.

“In Stevens’ case,” said Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University, “there has been this scent of corruption around him for a while now.” Kazin pointed out that here, any win “will likely hinge on his support before the charges dropped.”

Last year, federal agents raided Stevens’ home in the remote ski town of Girdwood, Alaska. TV cameras captured the landmark event — it was the first raid on a sitting senator’s home that congressional experts could recall. Agents in dark sunglasses carried myriad items out the senator’s front door, including a salmon sculpture and many large, tagged cardboard boxes. A high-end Viking barbecue grill caught the team’s eye. It had required a crane for installation on Stevens’s new second-story deck, locals recalled at the time of the raid.

The FBI’s court-ordered search of Steven’s home was not out of the blue. Since 2004, the Justice Dept. has been investigating Alaska state and federal politicians. Investigators caught wind of a suspicious home remodeling in 2000, where employees of an Alaska energy-services company, VECO Corp., ratcheted the Girdwood house off the ground so contractors could insert a new first floor. Tuesday’s indictment against Stevens includes these freebie home improvements in its charges.

The indictment alleges that Stevens gave “false statements” on his Senate disclosure forms seven times, by failing to disclose the gifts he had received over the years from VECO and its former chief executive Bill Allen. Allen pleaded guilty last year to bribery charges for his dealings with state officials, including Stevens’ son, the former Alaska Senate President Ben Stevens. The younger Stevens has not been charged with any crime.

Stevens said in a press release that he “never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. Senator.”

At a televised press conference in Washington on Tuesday afternoon, the Justice Dept.’s Acting Assistant Atty. Gen. for the Criminal Division Matthew Friedrich was asked whether the agency took the coming elections into account in timing these charges. He said they followed agency guidelines to “the letter.” Despite following the rules, the announcement clearly makes the tough race for Stevens even tougher.

Steven’s membership in his home state’s establishment is longstanding. He has served as the states U.S. senator since 1968, after helping shepherd Alaska into statehood during his time at the Interior Dept.

Often referred to around the state by his nickname, “Uncle Ted,” the most famous Alaskan — as he’s also known — has been dropping in popularity since last year. According to the most recent Cook Political Report update, a non-partisan group that tracks congressional races, Stevens’ re-election contest falls in the “toss-up” category. This is a big change from previous races, where usually he won walking away — like in 2002 with 78 percent of the vote.

Though reviled by watchdogs in Washington for what some have called “his twisted genius for getting what he wants,” the same skill has long served Stevens well at home. His popularity soared when he served as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee from 1997 to 2005. While sitting on that influential funding committee, he shuttled millions in earmarks back to his home state every year. Many in Alaska credit Stevens with funding much-needed infrastructure in the young state.

Stevens also pulled off feats like the multimillion-dollar “bridge to nowhere” earmark. The bridge itself was never built, but it came to symbolize the rampant questionable earmarking of the 1990′s. Watchdog groups like the non-partisan group Taxpayer’s for Commonsense have long sought to reform these and other such practices perfected by Stevens.

After the indictment landed today, the group’s vice president, Steve Ellis said Stevens “should voluntarily recuse himself for his committee seats.” Which Stevens did within hours, in accordance with Senate Republican Conference rules.

Melanie Sloan, head of the oversight group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and Washington, took it even further: “I think Stevens should resign, or at least retire.”

Luckily for Stevens, Sloan isn’t registered to vote in Alaska.

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