For 12 in D.C., That First Vote Is a Doozy

Ted Stevens, with daughter Beth and a U.S. marshal, finds himself in an election in miniature.
Ted Stevens, with daughter Beth and a U.S. marshal, finds himself in an election in miniature. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Finally, the people of the District of Columbia are getting a vote in congressional elections.

In the coming days, a dozen D.C. residents will have a big say in deciding who will represent Alaska in the Senate over the next six years. If they acquit Sen. Ted Stevens in his trial, the 84-year-old Republican is likely to win another term. If they convict him on the corruption-related charges, his Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, will probably get the seat.

"It's all about what happens in the trial," Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, the head of the Republicans' Senate campaign effort, said over breakfast at the National Press Club yesterday morning. If "he is found innocent, I think that he will win that election up there," Ensign said. "If it goes the other way, obviously, it really won't matter what happens in the election."

Now what was that about taxation without representation?

Stevens's reelection prospects didn't figure prominently in the trial arguments, which ended yesterday. So jurors are unlikely to know the stakes: that Democrats, in their long-shot quest for a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate, will almost certainly fall short of that goal if Stevens holds on.

But even if they were unaware of their consequential role in national politics, jurors saw their fourth-floor courtroom transformed during closing arguments yesterday into something very much like a battleground state: The two sides traded attack lines, while the jurors sat in judgment as the ultimate focus group.

"The defendant is not a 6-year-old, and his actions are not cute," said the prosecution.

The evidence "is so far from real life that it should make you sick," countered the defense.

"Since the defendant lives so close to the North Pole, maybe Santa and his elves came down and did this work," the prosecution taunted.

"That's sick! That's sick thoughts, not real life," said the defense. "If you look at lines through a filthy, dirty glass . . . then the whole world looks dirty."

And you thought things were rough on the campaign trail.

Behind the judge, the model of the scale of justice was tilted heavily toward the defendant's side, held down by a book of exhibits leaning against it. But the jurors gave no such clues as to their leanings; they responded much the way voters do to negative attacks on the campaign trail: with varying degrees of indifference.

At different points during the seven hours of closing arguments -- much of it a tedious recitation of gifts and bills -- a woman in the middle row near the judge closed her eyes. Another juror took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, while yet another inspected her jacket for lint. A juror in the first row let a big yawn escape, then covered her mouth with a fist and shook her head to revive herself. Four others chewed gum.

This required the lawyers to become more animated. Stevens attorney Brendan Sullivan, who uttered the immortal words "I am not a potted plant" during his defense of Ollie North, paced the courtroom, gesticulated wildly and swatted the lectern with his papers. "We keep hearing from the government, 'Veco, Veco, Veco, Veco, Veco, Veco, Veco!' " he said, gripping his head as he invoked the Alaska oil services company at the heart of the case. "I'm sick of hearing Veco!" He accused prosecutors of playing "tricks" and of introducing "trash" evidence. He called the prosecution's star witness a liar. "The government comes here late in the night of a good man's life and they try to brand him a criminal," said Sullivan.

Prosecutor Brenda Morris applied some lip gloss before the jury entered. She stretched her neck from side to side. And then she retaliated with her own courtroom version of the political attack ad. "Wow!" she yelled after Sullivan finished. "Were we at the same trial?" Morris mocked Stevens for "sputtering and stuttering" on the stand. The senator's wife, she said, "is still recovering from the bus they threw her under." She compared Stevens to a woman receiving "awfully purdy things" from a secret lover. And she called the defense's claims "wild" and "psychedelic."

The prosecutor ridiculed the defense for bringing in everybody but Olympic swimmers and Muhammad Ali as character witnesses: "It's not like Colin Powell and his wife are going to be riding by one day and say, 'Oh, the Stevenses are doing some work, I wonder who's doing it?' " And she delivered what may have been the most cutting words the former Senate president pro tempore has ever heard. "This trial has exposed the truth about one of the longest-serving senators," she argued, belittling him as a "onetime chairman of the appropriations committee" who "didn't know how to pay a bill."

The yawns and fidgeting in the jury box had subsided. Stevens, looking pale, slouched in his chair as Morris recounted for the jurors the most damaging part of the trial -- Stevens's own bullying testimony. "Behind all that growling and all those snappy comebacks and the righteous indignation, he's just a man and he needs to stand up and take responsibility," she said, asking the residents of the District of Columbia to do what "very few people have done: Stand up to him."

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