The Ted Stevens Indictment Is an Earthquake in Alaska Politics

It seems unlikely that Stevens will return to Congress next year, even if he wins the primary.

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ANCHORAGE—Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska has been indicted for making false statements about receiving gifts, primarily from prominent Alaska business executive Bill Allen, the former chairman of Veco, a now defunct oil and construction company, in a major renovation of his home in the ski resort town of Girdwood 40 miles south of Anchorage, and for favorable trades of automobiles. The indictment also alleged that Veco sought favorable treatment from Stevens and that his office did things on behalf of the company. It is almost exactly a year to the day that federal investigators conducted a search of the Girdwood home. This is not the first indictment that has roiled Alaska politics. Several state legislators have been indicted and some convicted of bribery charges; in May 2007, Allen and a Veco subordinate pleaded guilty to paying $400,000 in bribes to state officials.

As it happens, I am in Alaska to deliver a speech. I was able to speak with a few Alaska insiders on Monday, and none seemed to expect an indictment of Stevens or of Congressman-at-Large Don Young, who has also been under investigation—especially so soon before the August 26 primary. Alaska pollster Ivan Moore, who has worked for Democrats and in past years for Republicans, said that most locals believe Stevens did not knowingly take gifts, and Stevens has long maintained that he paid Veco all it billed for the renovations. But he noted that Stevens's and Young's legal predicaments have been a "cumulative embarrassment" for the state. Former Democratic state legislative leader Ethan Berkowitz, who is running for the U.S. House seat, pointed out that he had spoken out on the floor of the legislature against Veco. But all he had to say about Stevens is that he had "a lot of respect for what he's done" over the years. Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who is challenging Don Young in the primary, noted that Young has spent more than $1 million of campaign funds on lawyers. On Stevens's primary race against a little-known opponent, Parnell said only, "Most expect the senator to prevail." I stopped by Young's campaign headquarters, but it was shut tight as a drum, and aside from a few fliers on the reception desk, it seemed to have been undisturbed by campaign activity for some time. Young, like Stevens, is in Washington for the last week of session before the August recess.

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  • The Stevens indictment is the most recent state-shattering tremor in an earthquake of change in Alaska politics. Stevens has represented Alaska in the Senate since December 1968, when he was appointed by Gov. Walter Hickel (who's still around!) to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Democrat Bob Bartlett, one of Alaska's first two senators. Young has served in the House since he won a special election to succeed Democrat Nick Begich, who was lost in a flight from Anchorage together with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs during the 1972 campaign. The earthquake began when Gov. Frank Murkowski, who served in the Senate from 1981 to 2002, was defeated for renomination in 2002—he finished a humiliating third—by Sarah Palin, then mayor of Wasilla, a prosperous town in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, which is a sort of overflow community from Anchorage. Palin campaigned as a critic of the way business was done in Juneau, and she was elected in November against former Gov. Tony Knowles (whose lieutenant governor candidate was Berkowitz). Palin has had high job approval, although she was recently criticized for dismissing the state law enforcement director; she has been mentioned as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate. Interestingly, last September, Palin called on Stevens to give a more thorough explanation of the charges.

    How will this earthquake in Alaska politics play out? Stevens is probably still the favorite in the Republican primary, but in both public and private polls he has been running well behind Democrat Mark Begich, the son of Nick Begich, who has had high job ratings as mayor of Anchorage (a highly visible job, because nearly half of Alaskans live in or near Anchorage). But even his little-known challenger might now win the August 26 primary. And if Stevens wins the Republican nomination primary and then resigns the nomination, the state Republican Party could replace him with another candidate, although it's not clear who; the Republican state chairman is reportedly not on speaking terms with Governor Palin. In the House race, Parnell has been running slightly ahead of Don Young in public polls, while in general election pairings, Berkowitz has been running far ahead of Young but slightly behind Parnell. Parnell's advantages include his party label and his close association with Governor Palin. Berkowitz's advantages include his articulateness and reputation as a reformer, including his denunciation of Veco in the legislature.

    The Stevens indictment is just one more piece of evidence of the rottenness that has permeated Alaska politics. Nevertheless, I felt sad at the news. Stevens has worked diligently for Alaska for more than 40 years; in the 1950s, he was solicitor in the Interior Department and worked hard for Alaska statehood. As senator, he played a lead role in authorizing the Alaska pipeline, which made possible oil development on the North Slope and shaped the Alaska Native Claims Act—which I consider the best resolution of the claims of aboriginal peoples in American history. He has worked hard not only for oil and gas development but also for Alaska Natives, who make up 15 percent of the state's population. At his peak of popularity, he carried every precinct in the state. Now he faces defeat and disgrace for actions that, even if true, weigh far less, in my opinion, in the balance of history than the contributions he has made. This is a tragedy for a man who grew up poor in Los Angeles, was a pilot in World War II, went to Harvard Law on the GI bill and then moved to the Alaska territory and has done so much for his state.

    I feel less sympathetic toward Don Young's plight. His sponsorship of the $250 million "Bridge to Nowhere"—a bridge from the town of Ketchikan (population 8,000) to the island of Gravina (population 80)—was the issue that, more than anything else in my opinion, caused the defeat of the House Republican majority in 2006. He did it because as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he could. He also advocated an increase in the gas tax—political anathema to conservatives. More than any single other member, he was responsible for the image of out-of-control spending that did so much to demoralize conservative voters, to repel independents, and to defeat House Republicans in 2006. Like Stevens, he seems unlikely to return to the next Congress.

    That would leave as the senior member of the Alaska congressional delegation Lisa Murkowski, appointed to the Senate by her father, after he became governor, in December 2004 and elected to a full term by a narrow margin over Tony Knowles in November 2006. Quite a change from the period 1981-2004, when the same three men, Ted Stevens, Frank Murkowski, and Don Young, represented Alaska in Congress. Sometimes politicians, for all the good they do, can stay in office too long.