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Ted Stevens, 86; longtime GOP senator showered funds on Alaska

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; A01

Former senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, 86, who funneled billions of dollars to his home state over six terms in office and became one of the most powerful and combative federal legislators of his generation, died of injuries suffered in a plane crash Monday in southwest Alaska.

Mr. Stevens served 40 years in the Senate, longer than any other Republican in history. Starting out as a little-known envoy from a remote state, he used a combination of blunt aggression and deft political maneuvering to become a power broker who guaranteed a steady stream of federal dollars to Alaska.

He narrowly lost a bid for reelection in 2008, days after he was convicted of seven felonies for allegedly failing to disclose personal gifts. The conviction was thrown out months after the trial because of allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

As chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Mr. Stevens ensured that Alaska got the billions of dollars it needed to build modern transportation, education and sanitation systems despite the state's vast and remote terrain. "Stevens money," as federal dollars came to be known in Alaska, transformed the state, from its largest cities to its farthest-flung hamlets, and made its residents among the country's biggest per-capita beneficiaries of federal largess.

He was a favorite target of government-spending watchdog groups, and the notorious "bridge to nowhere" he championed in 2005 became a national symbol of out-of-control pork politics.

Mr. Stevens, a self-described "mean, miserable SOB," was unapologetic about defending the interests of the nation's northern frontier. For difficult fights on the Senate floor, he famously wore a scowl and a necktie featuring the raging comic-book character the Incredible Hulk.

"They sent me here," he once said simply, "to stand up for the state of Alaska."

Mr. Stevens molded Alaska through more than just money. By reaching across the aisle to form alliances with his Democratic counterparts, he established himself early in his career as a senator who could pass major legislation.

He played a leading role in drafting the landmark 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which addressed indigenous land claims by creating native corporations instead of reservations. In exchange for $15 billion and title to 44 million acres of ancestral homeland, native corporations gave up their claims on the rest of the state.

That agreement paved the way for a 1973 bill authorizing the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, another Stevens victory. The 800-mile pipeline traverses Alaska, shuttling oil from drilling sites in the north to cargo ships in Prince William Sound. It's an essential component of the state's oil industry, which now makes up nearly a third of Alaska's economy. Oil royalties and taxes account for 90 percent of the state government's general fund.

"The job of Alaska's congressional delegation has always been to pursue any project that has any promise of economic development," said Stephen Haycox, a historian of Alaska and the American West. "Ted Stevens understood that right from the very beginning."

He added that Mr. Stevens is probably "the most important Alaskan in shaping modern Alaska."

As chairman or ranking member on the defense appropriations subcommittee for more than 20 years, Mr. Stevens was a notorious hawk who brought hundreds of millions of dollars in defense spending to his state.

He also pushed through legislation that made life easier in the more-remote parts of Alaska. He modified postal rates to cut the cost of ordering groceries by mail and created the Denali Commission, an effort modeled on the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority. It provided millions of dollars a year to improve sewage systems, drinking water systems and other public health infrastructure in Alaska's rural villages.

Mr. Stevens was instrumental as a member and later chairman of the Commerce Committee in revising the principal law governing American fisheries. The 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Act, which called for sustainable fisheries management and an end to overfishing, earned rare praise for Mr. Stevens from environmentalists, who had tangled with the senator over his pro-logging stance and were some of his most vocal opponents.

Environmental groups and their allies in Congress frustrated Mr. Stevens's years-long effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. To Mr. Stevens, the fight over Alaska's wild coastal plain was personal. "I make this commitment," he said during a 2003 debate. "People who vote against this today are voting against me, and I will not forget it." His threats were not enough, however. In 2005, he lost his last best chance for a bill to open ANWR when Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) barred Mr. Stevens from tacking a drilling provision onto a defense appropriations bill.

Facing scandal

For all his power in Washington, Mr. Stevens occasionally struggled with personal finances. During the 1980s, investments he had made in cattle and crabbing went bad and forced him to sell his home in Maryland. He escaped from those straits when he inherited a yacht worth about $400,000 from the publisher of the Fairbanks newspaper.

In 2007, Bill Allen, a friend of Mr. Stevens's and former chief executive of an oil pipeline company called Veco Corp., pleaded guilty to paying three state lawmakers $400,000 in exchange for their favorable votes on oil and gas legislation.

An FBI investigation into the scandal resulted in an investigation of Mr. Stevens and a raid of his home in Girdwood, south of Anchorage. He was indicted on seven felony counts of lying on Senate disclosure forms to conceal $250,000 in gifts, including a sled dog, an electronic massage chair and major home renovations overseen by Allen for which Mr. Stevens had paid only a fraction of the cost.

Mr. Stevens said any omissions on his disclosure forms were a result of sloppy bookkeeping, not a criminal attempt to circumvent the law. He said he had paid the bill that Allen had sent for work on his Girdwood home, trusting that the bill accurately reflected services rendered.

Saying he hoped to clear his name before the 2008 election, Mr. Stevens insisted on a speedy trial and took to the witness stand in his own defense. Just eight days before voters went to the polls, he was convicted of all seven counts. He lost a narrow race to Democrat Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage. "I wouldn't wish what I'm going through on anyone, [not] my worst enemy," Mr. Stevens told reporters at the time.

In a farewell speech at the Capitol on Nov. 20, 2008, he said his philosophy throughout his career had been "to hell with politics, just do what's right for Alaska. I've tried every day to live up to those words."

Less than six month later, newly confirmed U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asked a judge to throw out the case against Mr. Stevens after revelations that federal prosecutors had withheld evidence, including key details that supported the defendant's claim that he hadn't known that he was being undercharged for home renovations.

"After careful review, I have concluded that certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial," Holder said in a statement at the time. "In light of this conclusion, and in consideration of the totality of the circumstances of this particular case, I have determined that it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the indictment and not proceed with a new trial."

Part of Alaska's beginnings

Theodore Fulton Stevens was born Nov. 18, 1923, in Indianapolis. After his parents divorced, he lived with various relatives and eventually grew up in California with an aunt. He picked up a fondness for surfing, and for years, he kept in his Senate office a polished wooden surfboard that he had bought in the 1940s.

At 19, he entered the Army Air Forces and became a pilot, flying transports during World War II over the Himalayas to supply Chinese nationals fighting Japanese troops. His military decorations included two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals.

After the war, Mr. Stevens put himself through college with money from the G.I. Bill and odd jobs. He graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1947 and three years later received a law degree from Harvard University. He was the first person in his family to attend college.

In 1952, he married Ann Mary Cherrington, and they moved to Alaska, where Mr. Stevens became a federal prosecutor in what was still a federal territory. A few years later, as a top Interior Department lawyer in Washington, he used his position to lobby for Alaska's statehood. It joined the union in 1959 as the 49th state.

He returned north in the 1960s and opened a private practice in Anchorage, winning a seat in the state legislature and losing two races for U.S. Senate.

'Frontier fertility god'

In 1968, Sen. Edward L. "Bob" Bartlett (D-Alaska) died, and Gov. Walter Hickel (R) appointed Mr. Stevens to replace him. Four years later, Mr. Stevens was named to the Appropriations Committee and began a long practice of helping other senators secure home-state projects in return for their votes on Alaska-related issues.

Although he generally voted with his party on national issues, Mr. Stevens was known as a compromiser who was willing to work with Democrats and occasionally broke with Republicans on key issues. He preferred to spend federal surplus dollars rather than cut taxes, and in 1999, he opposed the across-the-board tax cuts favored by the GOP. That same year, he was one of only 10 Republicans to vote against President Bill Clinton's impeachment.

In Alaska, Mr. Stevens's largess was so interwoven with the lives of his constituents that they called him "Uncle Ted." Alaskan journalist Michael Carey wrote that Mr. Stevens's "ability to deliver -- and his invulnerability to electoral challenge because he could deliver -- transformed him from an elected official into something of a frontier fertility god -- worshipped, propitiated, feared."

He was never known as a great orator or as a national spokesman for his party. But many of his colleagues respected him for his ability to prepare bipartisan bills and for his fierce nature. "He actually cultivated his reputation for a temper because it made people less willing to challenge him. It worked," said Svend Brandt-Erichsen, a legislative assistant for Mr. Stevens in the 1980s.

Mr. Stevens made headlines for his histrionics in 2005 when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a longtime critic of wasteful government, proposed diverting $452 million for two Alaskan bridge projects to rebuilding Louisiana infrastructure destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

"I come to warn the Senate," Mr. Stevens thundered during floor debate. "If you want a wounded bull on the floor of the Senate, pass this amendment." After that display of wrath, Coburn's proposal was roundly defeated.

In addition to serving on the Appropriations and Commerce committees, Mr. Stevens also was chairman of the ethics, rules and government affairs committees. He used the last position to propose a considerable pay raise for senators in 1980. That bill was shot down.

He served as assistant Republican leader from 1977 until 1985. He almost became Republican leader in 1984 but narrowly lost to Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). In 2002, he became president pro tempore, third in line for the presidency.

In December 1978, a plane carrying Mr. Stevens home from Juneau, where he had witnessed Republican Gov. Jay Hammond's swearing-in, crashed on the runway in Anchorage. Mr. Stevens was seriously injured; his wife and four others were killed.

Two years later, he married Catherine Chandler. Besides his wife, survivors include five children from his first marriage, Susan Stevens Covich of Kenai, Alaska, Elizabeth Stevens of Washington, Walter Stevens of Scottsdale, Ariz., Theodore Stevens Jr. of Menlo Park, Calif., and Ben Stevens of Anchorage, the former president of the Alaska Senate; a daughter from his second marriage, Lily Becker of San Francisco; and 11 grandchildren.

On April 12, 2007, Mr. Stevens reached 13,990 days of Senate service, making him the longest-serving Republican in that body. (Strom Thurmond of South Carolina served longer but had been a Democrat early in his tenure.) His colleagues stopped work and gave him a standing ovation. Republican Lisa Murkowski, then the junior senator from the 49th state, was among those who offered remarks.

"What you all need to appreciate," she said, "is that so much of the history of Ted Stevens is the history of Alaska."

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