By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008
ANCHORAGE, July 30 -- Alaska's vast landscape is littered with federally funded tributes to Sen. Ted Stevens's single-minded promotion of the state, from the brushed steel of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to the $187 million that subsidizes air mail for the one-third of residents who live beyond the reach of roads.
In his almost 40 years in the Senate, the octogenarian Republican in many ways defined the shape of the Last Frontier, not least by using his perch on the Appropriations Committee to ensure that his state's tiny population remained the nation's richest in federal spending per capita. More than $9 billion arrived in Alaska from Washington in 2006, twice as much as a decade earlier.
So it was perhaps to be expected that many here greeted the news of Stevens's indictment on corruption charges as if they were condemned to a pauper's death, fearful that they will no longer be able to depend on the largess of "Uncle Ted."
"There's no good that will come of this," said Jim Whitaker, a Republican who left the state legislature to combat the corrupt oil services company whose taint threatens to bring down Stevens. "For those of us who've been involved with politics in Alaska, one of the paradigms that we counted on in terms of funding public policy was the capability of Ted Stevens.
"It's not as though we don't have the capability to take care of ourselves," said Whitaker, now the mayor of Fairbanks's North Star Borough. "My concern is we're not used to it."
A third of Alaska's jobs can be traced to federal spending, according to the latest study by the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research. Many spring from military expenditures that Stevens encouraged during decades of service on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees defense spending.
"If he leaves the Appropriations Committee, how long do they leave the Stryker brigade here?" asked Mike Doogan, a Democratic state representative from Anchorage. "There are a lot of things that are attributable to him that are likely to dry up."
Scott Goldsmith, an economist at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, this month prepared the report, titled "How Vulnerable Is Alaska's Economy to Reduced Federal Spending?" The analysis noted that tightening budgets already had reduced the flow to Alaska, regardless of what Stevens is worth to a state where, at some point, all federal spending became known as "Stevens money."
"What I've told people is it's not really quantifiable," Goldsmith said.
Others say it is.
The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense said Wednesday that Stevens secured or played a significant role in 891 earmarks worth $3.2 billion to Alaska between 2004 and 2008. Divided among the state's 670,000 residents, the per capita figure of $4,872 is 18 times the national average of $263 over the same four years, the group said.
In Alaska, that amounts to a great deal of goodwill. Unlike the state's sole representative, Republican Don Young, author of the "Bridge to Nowhere" earmark and also a target of a federal investigation, Stevens long has been viewed as a statesman, interested above all in the state he helped found half a century ago, when he lobbied for statehood.
Some here point to a 1971 bill that settled the land claims of the state's indigenous population by establishing not reservations but corporations. Thirteen "native corporations" were each given millions of acres and millions of dollars.
Stevens, clearly driven by the need to establish who owned the land atop which a new oil pipeline would be built, framed the bill and pushed it through Congress. But natives emphasize that Stevens nurtured the corporations through rough beginnings. Many invested so shrewdly that 2006 revenue reached $5.3 billion.
"What's exciting is these corporations are reversing this long historic trend of extracting resources and sending profits outside the state. We are in fact in the business of importing profits," said Margie Brown, chief executive of the Cook Inlet Region Inc.
"Ted Stevens was there at the beginning, the author of this act," Brown said. "He feels he has a stake in how this turns out."
Many of his accomplishments will outlast Stevens, regardless of how he fares in the legal gantlet ahead: The Republican primary where his 50-point lead over little-known challengers "just exploded," said Ivan Moore, an Anchorage pollster; a November general election probably against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who was leading Stevens in polls even before the indictment; and a federal trial not yet scheduled.
Stevens has proclaimed his innocence, and his campaign manager told supporters on Tuesday that the senator's reelection campaign "is moving full steam ahead."
On Capitol Hill, Stevens projected a business-as-usual image on Wednesday by attending committee hearings, casting roll-call votes and receiving dozens of lobbyists at a $250-a-head fundraiser for his reelection campaign. Dodging questions from reporters all day, Stevens spoke briefly to his fellow Senate Republicans at a regular policy lunch, hoping to shore up his support among colleagues who have maintained a stony silence about his political future.
Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has been working to reelect Stevens, declined to endorse his colleague and suggested the party will see what happens in the Aug. 26 primary.
Here in Anchorage, the narrowness of the indictment -- seven counts of making false statements about more than $250,000 that corporate executives doled out to overhaul his Anchorage area house -- leaves some unimpressed.
"Failure to report? That's piddling," said Jack Roderick, the senator's former law partner. "I'm a Democrat and very strong Democrat, so we don't really agree much on politics. But I treat him as friend, and I think a lot of people do. This indictment seems kind of petty."
Others see in the charges "coziness" made literal -- a senator's furniture and gas grill allegedly purchased by an oil executive, Bill Allen, who has already testified that he paid Stevens's son nearly a quarter-million dollars in bribes. In the federal investigation that has unfolded in slow motion here over the last two years, former state senator Ben Stevens has not been charged. But three other lawmakers or former lawmakers stand convicted, and a fourth was indicted in July.
Oil, referred to here simply as "the industry," is the one economic force more formidable in Alaska than the federal government. The royalties it pays directly to the state make politics here both treacherous and, in some ways, almost too easy. Alaska eradicated its state income tax years ago, and as other states wrestle with deficits, its surplus over the next two years could reach $5 billion.
Whitaker said that as Allen and his oil services firm, Veco, threw money around the state capital, he was widely understood to be acting on behalf of the entire petroleum industry in Alaska.
"In Juneau, we saw what was happening," he said. "The consideration that it might extend to Washington, D.C., really wasn't in the lexicon of our thoughts."
Staff writer Paul Kane in Washington contributed to this report.